The mother of a teenage girl who committed suicide after being taunted online urged a state task force on Internet harassment Tuesday to recommend criminalizing such behavior.
Gov. Matt Blunt formed the task force in response to the death of Tina Meier's 13-year-old daughter, Megan, who killed herself last year after being teased on her MySpace page by a fictional teenage boy named "Josh." A neighborhood mother and two girls played a role in creating the hoax because they wanted to keep tabs on Megan's gossip.
"I can start MySpace (accounts) on every single one of you, and spread rumors about every single one of you, and what's going to happen to me? Nothing," Tina Meier told the task force at its first meeting here. "People need to realize that this is 100 percent not OK, that you're going to go to jail."
A local prosecutor decided Lori Drew, her daughter and a teenage employee did not violate state laws against stalking, harassment or child endangerment. Drew's attorney Jim Briscoe has said the children designed the account and sent the messages to Megan. Drew wasn't aware of the hurtful messages sent prior to Megan's suicide, he said. A few other Internet users joined in with cruel taunts before her death.
The task force, which includes legislators, academics and law enforcement officials, hopes to have a draft law written to submit to state lawmakers when they convene in January.
A member of the panel, University of Missouri law professor Doug Abrams, said U.S. courts have largely upheld the right of people to say things anonymously, whether on the Internet or a street corner. But it could be constitutional to outlaw using fake identities online to harass someone or solicit sex.
Lawmakers could "make it a misdemeanor to misrepresent the sender's identity. ... That's what goes on in a lot of these cases," Abrams said.
Industry groups are not necessarily opposed to new regulations, said MySpace lobbyist William Guidera, who is a task force member. For example, Internet companies supported passage of a law that makes it illegal for someone to lie about their age when setting up a sexual encounter online, Guidera said.
"Is there a silver bullet? No," Guidera said. "Are there multiple areas where you can be innovative to prevent this sort of thing? Yes."
Any law proposed by the task force would likely build upon existing legislation, said Mark James, director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety and chairman of the task force. A bill that would ban online harassment already has been filed in the state Senate.