Cyber Bullies Hard to Stop
ALISON STEWART, host:
There are so many disturbing aspects about the story of Megan Meier. Now, she's the 13-year-old Missouri girl who took her own life about a year ago after a boy who befriended her online turned on her. The adult neighbor later admitted in a police report that she was that boy; that she had made him up because her daughter and Megan were in a dispute, and she wanted, quote, "find out what Megan was saying online."
Now, Megan's family wants the adult neighbor punished, but at the time Megan died, a year ago, there weren't any laws on the books. But last week, officials in her hometown unanimously passed a measure, making Internet harassment a misdemeanor punishable by up to $500 in fines and 90 days in jail.
Now, as for the rest of the country, 32 states have some sort of law about offline bullying, and that's according to a watchdog group.
But online issues need to be addressed. We considered a report out this week from the Journal of Adolescent Health; it says 11 percent of middle school students surveyed said they were bullied online in the last few months. And the CDC reports that cyber bullying by instant message chat rooms and cell phones, well, that's up about 50 percent from five years ago.
Pepperdine Associate Professor Naomi Harlin Goodno has written about the issue for the Missouri Law Journal. Her work - "Cyberstalking, A New Crime: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Current State and Federal Laws."
Professor, thanks for being with us.
Professor NAOIMI HARLIN GOODNO (Law, Pepperdine University; Author, "Cyberstalking, A New Crime: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Current State and Federal Laws"): Good morning. How are you?
STEWART: I'm doing great.
I want to just get some baseline definitions here. What's the distinction that you make between cyber harassment and cyber bullying?
Prof. GOODNO: That is a good question. Generally speaking, cyber harassment or cyberstalking is the type of behavior that we would want to criminalize. Cyber bullying is bad behavior, but maybe not to the point where we would be seeking at least a felony type of conviction. Now, those are terms - the way I define those terms - and the truth is it's kind of all over the board right now how people are using those terms. Some people use the term cyber bullying to mean cyber harassment and cyberstalking in a way that I use them. So as we go forward in this discussion over the next, you know, year or so, I think it's going to get more and more important that we understand these different terms and define them.
STEWART: So in the case of this young girl, Megan Meier, where does her case fall, do you think?
Prof. GOODNO: That is a great question. It depends on what state you're in, and it depends on what laws are in place in that state. The article that I wrote basically takes a look at all of the state and federal laws and where they are, and the truth is they are all over the board. So, in some states, it's possible that what happened to her might fall under a criminal statute; in other states, the statutes just fall far short of dealing with the Megan Meier case or other similar cases.
STEWART: Now, there are laws related to terrestrial stalking, harassment and bullying. Why can't they be applied to the cyber equivalent?
Prof. GOODNO: Well, there's - sometimes they can, but generally speaking, I would say they fall short in at least in two ways. One way is a lot of them -what I call offline stalking or traditional harassment when we think of the creepy guy hiding behind the bush and following you from your office to your car - a lot of those statutes require what they call a credible threat or a true threat. And that means in order for the statute to be triggered, the individual stalker has to specifically threaten bodily injury of the victim.
Now, in a case like Megan Meier, that could be a problem because we're seeing here more of a harassment, but no specific threat. And there was actually a case that came out in 1997 that dealt with this issue. There was a college student who was writing torture and snuff stories, very violent, sexual, rape, killing people, and he had mentioned the name of a person down the hall from him in one of these stories, and he posted it online. Because that story was never sent directly to her, it was not a threat to her, and he was not prosecuted - the prosecution fell.
The other way that these statutes are falling short is what I call causing third parties to do harassment for you or what other scholars had called harassment by proxy.
STEWART: What does that mean?
Prof. GOODNO: That means, well, in a couple of ways, one is a stalker will take on the identity of the victim and go online as that victim.
STEWART: And start doing things online in that person's name.
Prof. GOODNO: Absolutely, and then get third parties to harass them. An example in California, there was a woman whose disgruntled boyfriend took on her identity, went online, said, I like to be gang raped, gave her phone number and her address, and six men actually came to her door.
STEWART: Oh, my gosh.
Prof. GOODNO: So, that is terrifying. And in New York, something very similar happened. A disgruntled business acquaintance took on the identity of somebody - or the victim - and started writing e-mails to pornographers and drug dealers and Satanists using her name, and those people responded and basically said, next time we hear about you, it's going to be in a police report. You better get a gun. And unfortunately, she had no legal recourse, which is why right now, I believe, your legislature in New York is looking at a cyberstalking bill.
BURBANK: How do you e-mail a drug dealer?
Prof. GOODNO: That is a great question. I'm not sure.
STEWART: It's - something that I keep thinking about as we have this discussion is this fuzzy line. And the local law enforcement in the Megan Meier case in Missouri, you know, they said that this may have been rude - this is their quote, the adults' behavior might have been rude, it might have been immature, but it wasn't illegal.
Prof. GOODNO: Mm-hmm.
STEWART: And that somehow doesn't seem right.
Prof. GOODNO: Yeah. And I think part of that is the laws that are in place in Missouri focus mainly on credible threat, those types of cases I was talking about where there was - there are threats.
There are some state statutes - Ohio is a great example - where they've adopted basically what I call a reasonable person standard. And what that law says is, is would have - would the conduct cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury or to suffer severe emotional distress? And so in the Megan Meier case, what would happen is if it did get to a jury, the jury would have to decide would, you know, a reasonable person in Megan Meier's situation react the way that she did.
STEWART: We've been talking about state law, but what about federal law?
Prof. GOODNO: There are, like, a three statutes that are pretty good. One is the telephone harassment statute, which is recently amended to include electronic communications. What's interesting about that is in order for that statute to be triggered, the person, the stalker has to be (unintelligible), which is kind of strange because sometimes they're not.
There is another statute. It's called the Interstate Stalking Punishment and Prevention Act. And it actually does adopt the reasonable person's standards.
STEWART: And what's the third one, quickly?
Prof. GOODNO: And the third one is the Interstate Communications Act.
STEWART: Pepperdine Associate Professor Naomi Harlin Goodno.
Thank you so much for helping us understand this story a little better.
Prof. GOODNO: Yes. Thank you.
BURBANK: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, what are you talking about, Osama? Osama bin Laden, apparently, has a new audio tape out. And we're going to talk about what's on that message which we saw on that tape and in that message and also what that might mean for al-Qaida's strategy.
STEWART: And those nasty political rumors, circulating around the Web, who has a gay albino son? It's not true. We'll debunk these myths coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.