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Experts: Laws don’t deter Net bullying



Published: Sun, December 21, 2008 @ 12:00 a.m.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Her enemies nicknamed her “Pork and Beans.”

Eggs and thumbtacks were thrown at her car in August, police say. A week later, the 16-year-old St. Peters girl found a can of beans dumped on the car’s roof.

Text messages — spurred by jealousy over a boy — soon filled the girl’s cell phone. Then came vulgar voice mails: One caller even threatened rape.

As a result, prosecutors used a new cyber harassment law to charge a 21-year-old St. Charles woman.

Nicole A. Williams is charged with misdemeanor harassment. She is accused of sending harassing text messages to the girl and letting friends use her cell phone to leave threatening voice messages.

Her case is one of at least seven involving adults in the St. Louis area filed since Missouri’s new cyber-bullying law took effect Aug. 28. Williams’ is the first harassment case involving text messaging filed in St. Charles County under the new law.

Eighteen states now have laws targeting Internet harassment and cyber-stalking, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the fallout of the cyber-bullying case of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., teenager Megan Meier, legal experts say the long-term impact of such laws is just beginning to take shape.

Illinois lawmakers passed a similar law this year, but it doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1. The law includes prohibiting a Web site with third-party access that contains “harassing statements made for the purpose of alarming, tormenting or terrorizing a specific person.”

Missouri’s updated harassment law covers threats or communication that causes emotional distress, including electronic messaging on computers, text messaging and e-mail. Charges can be filed as misdemeanors or felonies.

Williams’ lawyer, Michael Kielty, said she shouldn’t be punished for what others may have said or written using her cell phone. Missouri’s cyber-bullying law, Kielty says, is poorly defined and was passed hastily in response to the case of Meier, 13, who hanged herself in October 2006 after receiving hurtful messages over the social networking Web site MySpace.com.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction to a high-profile case that was blown out of proportion,” Kielty said.

Last month, a Los Angeles jury found Lori Drew, 49, of O’Fallon, Mo., guilty of three misdemeanor counts of accessing a computer without authorization for her role in the creation of a fake MySpace account. Drew faces up to three years in prison and a $300,000 fine. Prosecutors in California, where MySpace is headquartered, charged Drew under the Computer Use and Fraud Act, which has typically been used in computer hacking cases. St. Louis-area authorities said there were no applicable laws at the time to charge her.

Some experts say that even though cyber-bullying laws establish a framework for punishing those who use the Internet to harass others, those laws probably do little to deter such behavior.

Others say it will take a combination of the law, parent involvement and raising awareness to curb cyber-bullying.

Parry Aftab, a lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, which Megan’s mother, Tina Meier, has joined to raise awareness of cyber-bullying, says Drew’s conviction will have a dramatic effect on cyber-stalking cases nationwide.

“Because of Megan’s case, people are paying attention,” Aftab said. “The laws will make a difference once people understand that there are laws and once prosecutors start using them. We need to teach [people] that what you do online matters as much as what you do in real life, because the Internet is real life now.”

Justin Patchin, a criminologist at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-author of “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard,” is skeptical that such laws will be upheld in courts. He said the laws fail to deter such behavior by young people because most don’t understand what cyber-bullying is. However, Patchin said, the laws may be more effective in protecting children targeted by adults.

“The vast majority of these cases can and should be dealt with informally in schools with parents,” Patchin said. “Once we start criminalizing minor forms of bullying and cyber-bullying, that’s really going to draw too many kids into the criminal justice system.”


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