Thu, Nov 22, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Suicide sparks debate on Internet harassment

AP , ST. CHARLES, MISSOURI

An Internet hoax that ended with the suicide of a 13-year-old has led to calls from her family for better protections against online harassment, though any solution may run afoul of constitutional free speech rights.

Megan Meier, 13, hanged herself on Oct. 16 last year, just minutes after receiving mean messages on the social networking Web site MySpace. She died the next day.

Megan's parents learned about six weeks after her death that their daughter, who thought she was communicating online with a 16-year-old boy, was being deceived. The boy was created by a mother down the street who wanted to know what Megan was saying about her own daughter, who had had a falling out with Megan.

Lieutenant Craig McGuire of the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department said authorities could not find a crime to charge anyone with in Megan's case.

"How do you legislate bad behavior?" he asked.

Megan's family wants reforms that would make it illegal for adults to misrepresent themselves to children online and make it illegal to harass or bully online.

Aldermen in Dardenne Prairie, the Meiers' hometown of about 7,000 residents about 56km from St. Louis, have proposed a new ordinance related to child endangerment and Internet harassment. And Representative Cynthia Davis, a state lawmaker who represents the area, said she is trying to see if existing Missouri laws can be improved.

But, she said, any legal reforms must protect freedom of speech rights. And federal reform might be more appropriate since someone from outside the state could interact with Missouri children online, she said.

Even so, it is hard to know what would work as a response to Megan's situation, Davis said.

"This girl was not threatened on the Internet. Somebody said some things that were extremely horrid," she said.

What happened to Megan is not just awful, it ought to be criminal, her mother, Tina Meier, said on Monday.

"You cannot, absolutely cannot, as an adult, pose as a 16-year-old boy on a computer and play games with someone," Meier said.

"If there's not a law out there to punish someone for that, that's despicable," she said.

Tina Meier, who admits she let her daughter open a MySpace account before she was 14, said she monitored her daughter's activities, logging on for her daughter and using software to capture Megan's communications online.

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