After the suicide of Megan Meier and subsequent prosecution of her adult neighbor Lori Drew, lawmakers in Missouri amended the state's harassment law to cover electronic bullying and stalking.
Drew, 49, was convicted last month of several federal misdemeanors for her role in what prosecutors called a cruel online hoax -- using the social networking site MySpace -- that allegedly led Meier to kill herself. Drew was prosecuted in Los Angeles, where MySpace's computer servers are located, after authorities in Missouri said no state laws had been broken.
No statewide statistics have been kept on cyberbullying prosecutions in Missouri, and it was not immediately clear how often the law had been invoked, but charges have been brought against several defendants since the law went into effect Aug. 28, among them a 21-year-old woman who allegedly sent taunting and harassing text messages to a 17-year-old girl.
Though the long-term impact of Drew's case is still unclear, some observers say the recent prosecutions are part of a larger fallout from the landmark case, which received international attention.
Lori Drew Prosecution a 'Momentous' Case
By Jan. 1, at least 19 states will have laws addressing cyberbullying, nine of them passed this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Federal lawmakers are also considering action, after the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act was introduced in Congress earlier this year.
"It changed the landscape" of cyberbullying prosecutions, said Parry Aftab, director of WiredSafety.org, which fights cyber-bullying.
"This is momentous in terms of bringing attention to cyberbullying," she said. "This is one of those things that happens once in the lifetime of an issue. This was the first time something like this was brought to a national level."
Under a novel legal theory, Drew, of O'Fallon, Mo., was convicted of three misdemeanor counts of unauthorized access to computers under a federal law typically used to combat computer hacking. Prosecutors said she, along with her daughter and an assistant, created a fake MySpace profile in the name of Josh Evans, a fictitious 16-year-old boy.
Cyberbullying Charge for Text Messages
Pretending to be "Josh," they allegedly befriended and flirted with Meier, an insecure girl who lived down the street from the Drews. "Josh" eventually ended the relationship, with the assistant telling Meier, "The world would be a better place without you." Megan hanged herself that day.
Drew faces up to three years in prison and a $300,000 fine, though she will probably receive a far lighter sentence under federal guidelines. Her lawyers have asked to have the charges dismissed.
In one of the latest cyberbullying cases in Missouri, Nicole Williams allegedly sent harassing text messages to a then 16-year-old girl, who was not identified. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that at least seven such cyberbullying cases had been filed in the St. Louis area.
Williams allegedly began harassing the girl after seeing her talking to a boy at school, with whom Williams had been involved, said Melissa Doss of the St. Peters, Mo., police.
The girl allegedly received voice messages calling her names such as "pork and beans" and threatening her with rape, Doss said. The girl also had eggs and pork and beans thrown on her car, though Williams was not charged with that.
Williams, who is scheduled to be arraigned next month, told police she let her friends use her phone, according to court documents.
Williams' lawyer, Michael Kielty, criticized the law, saying, "What it effectively does is take behavior that would otherwise be legal and criminalize it because of the medium.
"The other problem we have with these statutes is you may have a device or e-mail address and any number of people can have access to the device or address and you don't know who did it, and I think that's the case here," he said.
Others who study cyberbullying also questioned whether the new spate of laws would be effective, saying public awareness of the issue would be more important than criminal cases.
"Convictions aren't going to do a thing," said Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet.
"We absolutely should not think that focusing on criminalization of behavior is going to protect young people. If we want to prevent these situations, we have got to empower kids and parents to realize what the risks are and how not to get into a risky situation," she said.
Aftab said many of the cyberbullying laws merely criminalize harassment that would otherwise be illegal if done over the phone or using other technology.