Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Legally, MySpace Mom Not Guilty of Much in Megan Meier Case

Lori DrewThe verdict is in on Lori Drew, 49, the Missouri "MySpace Mom" accused of setting up a fake account to taunt 13-year-old Megan Meier, reports CNN. More than 2000 news stories have hit the web since the verdict came down in this case that some litigation and civil liberties experts believed could establish legal precedents on "cyberbullying."

A lead on one of The Los Angeles Times stories about the case in its technology section reads as follows:

A federal jury delivered a mixed verdict today convicting a Missouri mother of misdemeanor charges in a nationally watched cyber-bullying case in which the woman was accused of using a fake MySpace account to torment a teenage girl who later committed suicide.

The jurors, however, rejected more serious felony charges against Lori Drew, 49, who was involved in a hoax on 13-year-old Megan Meier. The panel deadlocked on a conspiracy count. (LAT)
The story quotes Drew's attorney, H. Dean Steward, to say that it was a "compromise verdict" and that he believes "the U.S. attorney's office never should have brought this case," calling the verdict also a "message from the jury."

In the end, while she faces penalties, Drew was convicted of what--playing around on MySpace? She was not indicted for premeditated murder nor negligent homicide and faces, per The LA Times story, "anywhere from probation to three years in prison."

The Meier story at Wired calls the ruling a "slap-on-the-wrist verdict" and its blogger Kim Zettner suspects Drew will serve little if any time. She writes, "jurors found Drew guilty only of three counts of gaining unauthorized access to MySpace for the purpose of obtaining information on Megan Meier ... ." More from Wired:
After just over a day of deliberation, the six-man, six-woman jury acquitted Drew of three felony charges of violating the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act ... The jury unanimously rejected the three felony computer hacking charges that alleged the unauthorized access was part of a scheme to intentionally inflict emotional distress on Megan. ...

The novel use of the statute was criticized by numerous legal experts who said the case set a "scary" precedent and potentially made a felon out of anyone who violates the terms-of-service of any website.

But testimony in the case offered by prosecution witness Ashley Grills under a grant of immunity showed that nobody involved in the hoax actually read the terms of service. Grills also said that the hoax was her idea, not Drew's, and that it was Grills who created the Josh Evans profile, and later sent the cruel message that tipped the emotionally vulnerable 13-year-old girl into her final, tragic act.(Wired)
megan meierOn November 18, 2007, I wrote a post for about 13-year-old Megan Taylor Meier's suicide, how bloggers outed Lori Drew after mainstream media opted not to reveal her name in order to protect her daughter, Sarah Drew, a friend of Megan's who became a frienemy. Back then news sources said witnesses alleged that Lori Drew, also a neighbor and friend of the Meier family, had, with the assistance of her own daughter and another teen (Ashley Grills) had established a fake account for a fictitious dream boy, "Josh Evans," and convinced Megan that the new boy in town liked her.

Then it was alleged that Drew sat back as the hoax turned into an ugly game of teasing Megan. Finally its players delivered a fatal kick to the girl's fragile ego, having "Josh" reject her.

Sources report that the hoax morphed:

Complications arose when another neighborhood girl obtained the password for the "Josh Evans" account and sent messages to Megan saying Josh no longer wanted to be friends with her. A dispute erupted and on Oct. 16, 2006, Grills typed a message telling Megan "that the world would be a better place without (her) in it." (CNN)
Twenty minutes later, say sources, Megan Meier hung herself in her bedroom closet. She died in the hospital the next day.

Here is video of one of the early television stories on her death and its circumstances:

In my first post, I asked "When should cyberbullying be considered a crime?" I also explored online shaming, the type faced by Lori Drew and others that Internet communities believe should be penalized for harmful behaviors. The Megan Meier's case is a passion magnet, from outraged parents who fear their own children could be hurt through online activities to bloggers outraged at the Internet "lynch mob" mentality of those who found Lori Drew's alleged participation in the affairs of teenagers reprehensible to ordinary people concerned about teen suicide no matter the factors.

When another BlogHer contributing editor, RocksInMyDryer, wrote about the four-count indictment of Drew, she heard from Shelly P., a technology blogger and book author, who's been appalled at how bloggers have covered the Meier case. I also heard from Shelley when I first posted, and she said "webloggers suck when it comes to a true sense of justice."

But Rocks and I also heard from readers and bloggers like JennB who wrote:

I think everyone in the media and public should not lose sight of the fact that a 13 year old girl will not have the opportunity to grow up and liver her life. We will never know what kind of contribution this girl would have made to our world.

It is sad that the internet has the ability to exploit our deepest fears and feelings. We should all treat it with more respect and responsibility, especially where our children are concerned.

This family's tragedy is a learning experience for us all. Unfortunately! (JennB)
And also Jim Helvilin of Missouri who bemoaned that his own state did not do more to make Lori Drew "pay for her Evil behavior."

We want someone to be responsible for children who fall through the cracks and for bullies to pay for their sins. However, the Meier's story brims with people to share blame. Perhaps the doctors treating Megan for depression didn't medicate her properly. Maybe her parents should not have let her have a MySpace account. Maybe grown women such as Lori Drew should not turn to people like their 18-year-old assistants, Grills, for advice on how to ferret out middle-school rumors about their own daughters, as CNN per Grills reports Drew did.

Grills's testimony to the federal jury may have been similar to the statements she made to ABC's Diane Sawyer. In the ABC interview, it's said Drew accused Grills of being the mastermind behind the MySpace hoax and claimed that Drew herself sent no messages and did not instruct anyone to create the page, but Grills maintains Drew was very involved.

Repeatedly we've heard bloggers asks, "How could Lori Drew, a grown woman, involve herself in getting revenge on a 13-year-old? And as we seek answers we also wonder why, oh why, can't we teach our children to stop being hateful, to love themselves, to be more like us well-centered adults?

The problem is perhaps that well-centered adults are in short supply and that our children are often too much like us, too self-centered, too vindictive, and too scared to accept themselves with love.

So, the Meier's tragedy has deeper lessons than simply we don't have justice for all and how laws fail us in the age of technology. Laws against stupidity and callousness are difficult to write as BlogHer's Professor Kim lamented on that first Meier's post:

It seems obvious that it ought to be illegal to harass someone the way the creators of the fake "Josh" account did. And yet, how would you craft the law? You can't make laws to suit a special case; you have to recognize that they will be applied more broadly.

There's no evidence that these people intended to drive Megan to suicide. although common sense would tell most of us that this kind of harassment would have that outcome. Even so, it's not like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, where you can almost certainly predict that you will create a panic. Even Megan's parents didn't anticipate that her response to the online messages would be so extreme. So the law could end up regulating speech without regard to intent -- which has thorny First Amendment implications.

And Myspace allows the creation of accounts with fictitious identities. That's why companies can have accounts, and for some people, iit's part of the fun of online role-playing.

Aside from all of that, it seems to me that the answer lies beyond the law. I don't know how you legislate decency and compassion. The adults who concocted this hoax -- and apparently induced children to participate -- have a seriously defective moral compass. That community needs to come together to figure out how to ensure that its young people don't get mixed messages about how we are to treat each other, especially in times of conflict. (Professor Kim)
Is there any solution for cyber citizens as we not only mull the muddy verdict in the Meier case but also look at last week's other Internet atrocity, Abraham Biggs, another teen suicide, who died before a chuckling Web audience?

For all our advancement, we remain crippled in managing our emotional mess.

Cross-posted at

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