US must protect citizens against online harassment

People must be protected against online harassment, the family of the girl who committed a suicide because of Internet hoax said, but any solution may run afoul of constitutional free speech rights.

Megan Meier, 13, hanged herself Oct. 16, 2006, 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.

Lt. 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 35 miles (56 kilometers) from St. Louis, have proposed a new ordinance related to child endangerment and Internet harassment. And Republican Rep. Cynthia Davis, a state lawmaker who represents the area, said she is trying to see if existing Missouri laws can be improved.

But, she noted, 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 Monday.

"You cannot, absolutely cannot, as an adult, pose as a 16-year-old boy on a computer and play games with someone," Meier, 37, told The Associated Press.

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

Tina Meier, who acknowledges she let her daughter open a MySpace account before she was 14 as the Web site requires, said she monitored her daughter's activities, logging on for her daughter and using software that was designed to capture Megan's communications online.

MySpace did not comment specifically on Meier's case, but an employee said the site does have information about keeping teens safe online, with guidelines for what people can do if they feel they are being bullied.

Meier said more needs to be done to protect children.

"We want the law to change so this doesn't happen again," she said.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova