On Monday, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt put his signature on a new law that targets stalking and harassment on the Internet, pulling the state’s harassment law into the 21st Century by including telephone and electronic communications in a statute traditionally reserved for in-person activities. What that new law can’t do is rein in the U.S. Department of Justice in its quest to stretch federal computer anti-hacking statutes the point of absurdity.
If that leaves you scratching your head, here’s the quick backstory: A suburban St. Louis woman, Lori Drew, allegedly created a false profile on MySpace, posing as a teenage boy to solicit information about her daughter by engaging 13-year-old Megan Meier in online conversation. Drew’s alter ego and Meier engaged in teenage banter until the “boy” suddenly began sending Megan messages that were allegedly cruel and harassing. Megan found the ordeal untenable and hanged herself. The public outcry was swift, but Missouri lawmakers could only shake their heads, note the tragic circumstances, and wring their collective hands; state law enforcement officials had to admit that Drew’s nightmarish escapade hadn’t broken any laws. Blunt closed that legal gap by signing the new harassment law mentioned earlier.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department sought to make the case a federal crime by charging Drew with having violated the MySpace terms of service agreement, thus gaining “unauthorized” access the social network’s computers. “If the theory of this indictment is allowed to stand, it would represent a gross and inappropriate expansion of federal power to regulate speech and communications over the Internet,” wrote CDT President Leslie Harris in her ABC News online column. The tragedy of Megan Meier’s death is unfathomable, but that does not make it a federal case. Missouri’s swift legislative response was the right move, and should serve as a model for other states with a similar gap in harassment law.