A landmark cyber-bullying case inspires new laws–and raises awareness of a growing problem

In a high-profile case involving cyber bullying, Missouri mother Lori Drew was found guilty in November of three minor offenses instead of the main conspiracy charge in a cruel internet hoax that allegedly drove 13-year-old Megan Meier to suicide.

The landmark federal trial was one more step in the healing process for Tina Meier, Megan’s mother, who has focused on ways to protect other children from cyber bullying in the wake of Megan’s death–even leaving her job as a real estate agent to dedicate herself to the Megan Meier Foundation.

Prosecutors said Drew, 49, and two others created a fictitious 16-year-old boy on MySpace and sent flirtatious messages from him to Megan. They said Drew wanted to humiliate Megan for saying mean things about Drew’s teenage daughter. The "boy" then dumped Megan, saying, "The world would be a better place without you." Megan promptly hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet in October 2006.

The nation’s first cyber-bullying trial hinged on an unprecedented–and, some legal experts say, highly questionable–application of computer-fraud law.

Because Missouri did not have a law against cyber bullying at the time of Megan’s death, prosecutors charged Drew under the federal Computer Use and Fraud Act, which in the past has been used in hacking and trademark theft cases. Among other things, Drew was charged with conspiring to violate the fine print in MySpace’s terms-of-service agreement, which prohibits the use of phony names and harassment of other MySpace members.

"The rules are fairly simple," federal prosecutor Mark Krause said. "You don’t lie. You don’t pretend to be someone else. You don’t use the site to harass others. They harassed Megan Meier."

But some legal experts have suggested this is a reach–and that Drew’s conviction might not stand up on appeal.

After Megan’s suicide, Missouri passed a law against cyber harassment, and similar federal legislation was introduced on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

In Missouri, a handful of cases have been filed since the state’s cyber-bullying law took effect in August. In one of the new cases, 21-year-old Nicole Williams is accused of using electronic communications to harass a teenager in a dispute over a boy. Williams is scheduled for arraignment on one count of harassment on Jan. 8.

Defense attorney Michael Kielty, who represents Williams, criticized the state’s revised law on electronic harassment. He called Megan Meier’s death tragic, but said lawmakers had engaged in a knee-jerk reaction to try to address the high-profile case.

"It’s probably one of the worst-written laws I’ve seen in my career," Kielty said, noting that kids used to say things face to face or pass notes in school commenting on someone’s looks or weight. The new law "criminalizes behavior that otherwise wouldn’t be illegal, except for the medium," he said.

About 45 states have updated their laws to address harassment through electronic communications or crafted new laws to respond to the concerns of cyber bullying or stalking, said Naomi Goodno, an associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law who has written about cyber-bullying law. Some of those changes have come as a result of Megan’s death.

State Sen. Scott Rupp, who sponsored the bill to change Missouri’s harassment law, said Missouri’s law hasn’t been fully tested, but he believes it is making people more aware of what they say online.

"That people are actually paying attention–it’s a good thing," Rupp said.

Related links:

Federal lawmaker targets cyber bullying

Cyber bullying: From victim to crusader

Web site lets kids report cyber bullying

Kids keep adults in the dark about cyber bullying

MySpace-hoax trial shines light on federal cyber bullying bill

Cyber bullying case nets mixed verdict

Web sites offer tools to combat cyber bullying

Missouri begins prosecuting under cyber bullying law