Cyberbullying: Despicable, But Criminal?

Everyone loves when justice is served. But sometimes what looks like justice is just a façade -- and a dangerous one at that.

Take the case of Lori Drew. Drew is a 49-year-old mother of two from Missouri whose MySpace prank resulted in the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier.

Megan, like most girls her age, had a MySpace account. Megan was having some emotional troubles. She considered herself overweight, had very low self-esteem, and was depressed enough to have had suicidal thoughts. But that all changed when she met a 16-year-old boy on MySpace. Josh Evans paid attention to her and made her smile. Their friendship blossomed and became somewhat romantic, in a teenage sort of way. Then very suddenly, everything turned sour. Josh became mean and nasty to Megan, and began messaging her school friends saying terrible things about her. The friends ganged up on Megan and posted hurtful comments on her MySpace page. Then Josh wrote to her: "Everybody in O'Fallon [her school] knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you." A distraught Megan then hung herself. She died the next day.

Sadly, the boy Megan ended her life over never even existed. Lori Drew, the mother of Megan's former best friend, created "Josh Evans" for the sole purpose of interfering in her daughter's social life. Drew claims she started the charade just to see if Megan was saying anything about her daughter on MySpace. Why it became mean, cruel, and vicious is something only she knows. She has made excuses for her actions, but none that excuse the abhorrent behavior that literally crushed Megan's spirit and led to her suicide. A grown woman posted messages as a teenage boy, saying hurtful, horrible things to a 13-year-old girl that she knew was suffering from depression to begin with. How did she know? Because Megan went on vacations with that family. They knew she took medication. She was the best friend of their daughter. And yet this mother decided to interfere in her daughter's life to the extent that she became a part of, and a cause of, so much teenage drama.

There were immediate cries for justice and punishment. Someone needed to be held responsible for Megan's death and the public outcry indicated that they wanted Lori Drew's head. But did she commit a crime? While her actions were certainly despicable and vile, were they criminal?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, that answer is yes. Exploiting an anti-hacking law, a federal grand jury last Thursday returned a four count indictment against Drew: one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization. Because Drew could not be legally tried for her part in the death of Meier, she was tried instead for breaking cyber-laws, namely, breaking the MySpace Terms of Service.

Would there have been such a rush to judgment had the case not received nationwide attention? The swell of Internet postings on this story grew to such large proportions that mainstream news eventually picked it up. At that point, it seemed like justice was almost demanded; people were calling for the head of Lori Drew and, even though there was no way to physically tie her to the death of Megan Meier, the authorities made sure that such a public case was going to come to its proper conclusion: with justice served.

But the cost of that justice is too high to pay. What Drew's indictment means, in essence, is that any Internet user now risks criminal proceedings for doing something as simple as creating a fake name to post messages on a website, something many people do each day for legitimate reasons.

Yes, perhaps Lori Drew did commit a crime, but it was more of a moral crime, not a legal one. Indicting someone because their words and actions led another person to kill themselves is opening a Pandora's Box of trouble. Unfortunately, in this cruel world things like this happen every day, particularly when teenagers are involved. The fact that Lori Drew used the Internet as a tool to perpetrate her viciousness is the only thing that is giving anyone any authority to prosecute her.

If her words to Megan were spoken, or written on a note tacked to the Meiers' door, would there be the same outrage? Would Lori Drew be facing jail time, presumably for her complicity in Megan's death? Probably not, because there is no law to loophole that says you can't leave a fictitious note from a nonexistent person on someone's door.

By turning MySpace into the victim and using the hacker law to prosecute Drew, are we now to understand that we can't make fictitious profiles or user names on Internet forums? That thousands of people who don't want their employees to read their blogs or their exes to find them can no longer hide behind a pen name, even if there is no criminal intent to using that name? Are we going to have to state our intent when creating profiles or email addresses? After all, it is inconsistent to prosecute one person for this action and not the thousands upon thousands of people who practice this daily.

As a parent of teenage kids, I'm sympathetic to the Meier family and align myself with those who wish to see some kind of punishment served on Lori Drew for being intentionally mean to a child she knew was vulnerable and depressed. A good, old-fashioned public shunning comes to mind.

However, handing down a verdict using laws meant to keep the Internet safe from hackers is doing a vast injustice to the well-being of the Internet and will do nothing to keep our children safe from cyber-harassment. As parents, it is our job to teach our children how to properly use the Internet and to set guidelines for them. We cannot ask the government to step in and virtually tie the hands of thousands of users in order to protect our children from vicious bullies like Lori Drew.

Michele Catalano lives, writes, and takes photographs on Long Island.