LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
For years, kids who were the victims of bullying and teasing at school or on the playground could find refuge at home. But in the age of the new technology, bullying has become a 24-hour problem. With harassers able to taunt and tease their peers through email, text messages and social networks, this cyber bullying was the crux of the case surrounding 13-year-old Megan Meier, who hanged herself in 2006 after receiving a series of online insults.
A Missouri woman was convicted late last year of misdemeanor computer fraud in that case. She had helped to create a fake MySpace profile of a teenage boy who courted Megan online and then rejected her. California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez is sponsoring a bill named after Megan that would make it a federal crime to engage in bullying electronically, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.
Representative LINDA SANCHEZ (Democrat, California): Thank you. It's great to be here.
WERTHEIMER: The bill you've introduced is called the Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act. What does it outlaw?
Rep. SANCHEZ: It sets a federal standard for what cyber bullying is. It talks about behavior that is intended to embarrass, threaten or harass, but that behavior has to be repeated, hostile and severe. So, it isn't a bill that would get young kids caught up, who might in a fit of anger type something like, I hate you, once - it's got to be a behavior that is repeated and severe.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think it makes sense for federal prosecutors who normally deal with far larger and wider ranging crime to be dealing with when one kid is really nasty to another kid online?
Rep. SANCHEZ: It sounds trivialized when you say, oh, somebody's just being mean to somebody online. But there have been a number of examples where kids have actually committed suicide because of this and yet you're not holding anybody accountable for the behavior that caused that.
But by virtue of having the law on the books, it starts a discussion with parents, with school administrators and with kids that this kind of behavior isn't tolerated, it is criminal and I think it really can be a huge deterrent just from a teaching perspective from that.
WERTHEIMER: What makes cyber bullying so difficult to police right now that you think new laws need it?
Rep. SANCHEZ: The person who does the bullying never has to confront the victim face-to-face. And unlike your traditional schoolyard bully, kids can't flee from cyber bullying. So, there really is no respite from the harassment and it's that much more severe.
WERTHEIMER: You could always unplug.
Rep. SANCHEZ: This is true, but even kids who carry cell phones for emergency, it's much harder to avoid now than in the past.
WERTHEIMER: Kids and adults have engaged in cyber bullying - the Megan Meier case being an example where the cyber bullier was actually an adult.
Rep. SANCHEZ: Correct.
WERTHEIMER: Do you contemplate in this legislation treating them the same way, children and adults?
Rep. SANCHEZ: Yeah, whether or not you're a child or an adult, certain things are criminal behaviors. Where the distinction between child and adult perpetrators comes in would be in sentencing, if there were conviction. A judge would take into account several factors, obviously, in terms of setting a sentence that they felt was appropriate.
WERTHEIMER: The Missouri woman who was the cyber bullier in the Megan Meier case was convicted of three misdemeanor charges in that case. Do you think a federal law would somehow do something more serious than that?
Rep. SANCHEZ: Where the bullying took place, which was in the state of Missouri, there was no law. And prosecutors tried to find a way to charge her, and they couldn't. She would've gotten off without any punishment, but for a very creative prosecutor in Los Angeles and because of MySpace social networking site had facilities located in California; it was actually a California prosecutor who had prosecuted her for computer fraud because she assumed this person that she wasn't and fraudulently gained the trust of Megan Meier.
If you think about the death of a child and somebody who their punishment is they've been convicted of, you know, misdemeanors, it hardly seems sufficient in a case where an adult really should know better. It just screams for justice.
WERTHEIMER: What do you think your chances are? I mean, oftentimes in Congress when you introduce something, you have to go a few rounds before you can get it before the House. What do you think?
Rep. SANCHEZ: I introduced this bill last term and had a lot of bipartisan support. And I was successful last term in getting some legislation passed to help fund, through grants, programs that helped teach kids how to be safe online. So, I think there is a growing awareness among members of Congress, that this is an area that we need to really look at and try to help police. And I'm very confident that we're going to have a lot of support and move the bill through in this session.
WERTHEIMER: Congresswoman Linda Sanchez. She represents California's 39th District. Thank you very much for coming in.
Rep. SANCHEZ: My pleasure.