Lori Drew, MySpace Cyber-Bully — and Criminal?

A federal prosecutor has filed cyber-bullying charges against Lori Drew, a very mean woman who used a fake MySpace identity to harass a teenager.

A Missouri woman was indicted [May 15] on federal charges for fraudulently using an account on the social networking website MySpace.com to pose as a teenage boy who feigned romantic interest in a 13 year-old girl. That girl later committed suicide after the “boy” spurned her and told her, among other things, that the world would be a better place without her.

Lori Drew, 49, of O’Fallon, Missouri, was named in a four-count indictment returned this morning by a federal grand jury. The indictment charges one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress on the girl who, because of juvenile privacy rules, is referred to in the indictment only as M.T.M.

The indictment alleges that Drew, along with others, registered as a member of MySpace under the name “Josh Evans.” Drew and her co-conspirators then used the Josh Evans account to contact M.T.M. and began what the girl believed was an on-line romance with a 16-year-old boy. In taking those actions, the indictment alleges, Drew and her co-conspirators violated MySpace’s “terms of service” (TOS) that prohibit users from, among other things, using fraudulent registration information, using accounts to obtain personal information about juvenile members, and using the MySpace communication services to harass, abuse or harm other members.

The penalty for which, generally, is suspension of said account. Not a federal criminal indictment.

Jacob Sullum wonders, “Is Being Mean Online a Federal Crime?”

There are plenty of reprehensible things people do that are not and should not be crimes. One of them is being mean to emotionally vulnerable people. Since individual reactions to insults are unpredictable and highly variable, a rule that criminalized speech when it leads to suicide or other forms of self-harm would chill any expression more negative than “Nice day, isn’t it?” Because there is no such rule, [U.S. Attorney Thomas P.] O’Brien has twisted a law aimed at fraud, spying, vandalism, and child pornography into an excuse to punish a woman everyone hates.

It’s hard to argue otherwise. Orrin Kerr outlines the legal rationale for why this is so in some detail.

However much one might wish, as Kim Priestap does, that “Lori Drew should not be able live a peaceful or anonymous life ever again. She should be reminded of what she did every single day for the rest of her life: she tormented an innocent teenage girl so badly that she drove her to suicide just because of a spat she had with her daughter,” it’s unspeakably dangerous to give prosecutors a right to, essentially, create an ex post facto law through selective and creative prosecution.

Megan McArdle figures maybe Drew should simply be shunned, which seems to already have taken place. But subject to federal prison? Because some poor girl reacted badly to a cyber-breakup?

Daniel Solove passes on word that Missouri legislature has passed a law in response to the case, dramatically expanding laws against harassment to include

1) By knowingly communicating with another person who is, or who purports to be, seventeen years of age or younger and in so doing, and without good cause, recklessly frightens, intimidates, or causes emotional distress to such other person; or

2) By engaging, without good cause, in any other act with the purpose to frighten, intimidate, or cause emotional distress to another person, cause such person to be frightened, intimidated, or emotionally distressed, and such person’s response to the act is one of a person of average sensibilities considering the person’s age.

He understates things considerably in calling this “incredibly dumb” and a “very poorly crafted piece of legislation.” It’s simply dangerous, giving law enforcement authorities a weapon to, post-hoc, determine that someone’s actions are criminal because of an unfortunate outcome.

Cases like this, too, illustrate just how many things are technically against various laws and how much leeway there is in their enforcement. Laws regulating criminal conspiracy, racketeering, fraud, sexual harassment, improper use of the mails, the Internet, hate crimes, and others are necessarily vague. This allows them to be misused whenever prosecutors feel like it, whether as leverage in coercing a guilty plea or in charging people the public doesn’t like with something.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    This allows them to be misused whenever prosecutors feel like it, whether as leverage in coercing a guilty plea or in charging people the public doesn’t like with something.

    Which is why we have impartial judges, juries and grand-juries, correct?

    The penalty for which, generally, is suspension of said account. Not a federal criminal indictment.

    If you take out the internet fraud and impersonation, and it was just a matter of a woman’s words driving a teenager to suicide, wouldn’t that be a form of child abuse? Does it make a difference, legally, if causing the suicide was the defendant’s intention? How about if the intention was to cause severe emotional distress to a minor?

  2. John425 says:

    This is not a mere “online” incident. They were neighbors for chrissake! They saw the poor girl almost daily and knew full well what their words were doing to her.