State governments and federal prosecutors are cracking down on individuals who use the internet to harass or threaten others. On June 30, Missouri Governor Matt Blount signed into law a measure that criminalizes online harassment. This new law represents a marked change in the legal treatment of this form of harassment, also known as “cyber-bullying.” Other states have enacted legislation to help stop cyber-bullies, but none has gone so far as to impose jail sentences on violators. The Missouri law, however, criminalizes the transmission of an electronic communication for the purpose of frightening or disturbing another. V.A.M.S. 565.091 (not yet chaptered). Adult violators of this new law face up to 4 years in prison if they perpetrate the offense against a child.
The legislation responds to the 2006 death of 13-year old Megan Meier, who committed suicide after being harassed repeatedly on MySpace. The harassment was allegedly perpetrated by Lori Drew, a 47-year old woman who falsely assumed the identity of a fictitious teenage boy on MySpace and posed as this character to develop an online relationship with Meier. The girl’s suicide was allegedly prompted by disparaging comments made by Ms. Drew disguised as the teenage boy. The tragedy outraged the Missouri community in which it occurred, but local authorities were unable to prosecute Ms. Drew because cyber-bullying was not illegal.