Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Missouri passes cyber-harassment law but in LA the prosecutors are too creative

The story starts from a tragedy: a 13 years old girl, Megan, committed suicide after allegedly receiving a dozen of cruel messages from a “friend” she made in MySpace, who did not really exist and was probably created by an adult neighbour to find out what the deceased girl was saying about her daughter. After the fictional boy, Josh, decided to break-up “his” relation with Megan and a discussion between the girl and her mother, Megan went upstairs in her home and hung herself using a belt.

Prosecutors in Missouri declined to file charges because there were no state law punishing cyber-harassing, so the state legislature changed the law by removing the need for the communication to be written or over the telephone and clarifying that “[h]arrasment includes communication by any means”. It is important to note that, with the information available (we only know that there were about a dozen of “mean” communications), it is unlikely that under the new law the impersonators of Josh would be prosecuted anyway. While being mean and cruel could be morally or socially despicable, it would be strange if judges decide to start putting people in jail for acting in that manner. Furthermore, the new law defines harassment as to frighten or disturb another person and to

1) By knowingly communicating with another person who is, or who purports to be, seventeen years of age or younger and in so doing, and without good cause, recklessly frightens, intimidates, or causes emotional distress to such other person; or

2) By engaging, without good cause, in any other act with the purpose to frighten, intimidate, or cause emotional distress to another person, cause such person to be frightened, intimidated, or emotionally distressed, and such person's response to the act is one of a person of average sensibilities considering the person's age.

We will have to wait what judges decide regarding some thin-skull principles, but the law seems to exclude this rule by making clear and express reference to a “person of average sensibilities considering the person’s age", and the girl Megan had history of depression, which would put her well outside of being of “average sensibility”…

But the adult neighbour is still being charged, in California! Federal prosecutors are using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to charge the woman for conspiracy and accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress, in the place where MySpace is located. The statute was originally created to deal with hackers and others who obtained information from a computer, and it is difficult to see how it can be used when somebody is using its own computer to send information. It is understandable the desire of the girls parents to have justice served in a situation like this and the overzealously of the prosecutors when dealing with kids well-being, but the parents would probably find that tort law may give them some answers because it seems that the federal crime one may leave them with a quite bitter after-taste…

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