DARDENNE PRAIRIE, Mo., Nov. 21 — Megan Meier died believing that somewhere in this world lived a boy named Josh Evans who hated her. He was 16, owned a pet snake, and she thought he was the cutest boyfriend she ever had.
Josh contacted Megan through her page on MySpace.com, the social networking Web site, said Megan’s mother, Tina Meier. They flirted for weeks, but only online — Josh said his family had no phone. On Oct. 15, 2006, Josh suddenly turned mean. He called Megan names, and later they traded insults for an hour.
The next day, in his final message, said Megan’s father, Ron Meier, Josh wrote, “The world would be a better place without you.”
Sobbing, Megan ran into her bedroom closet. Her mother found her there, hanging from a belt. She was 13.
Six weeks after Megan’s death, her parents learned that Josh Evans never existed. He was an online character created by Lori Drew, then 47, who lived four houses down the street in this rapidly growing community 35 miles northwest of St. Louis.
Now, Drew faces criminal charges:
On May 15, a Missouri woman was indicted on federal charges for fraudulently using an account on MySpace. While many people may pretend online to be someone they’re not, this particular incident apparently had deadly consequences.
The woman being charged posed as a teenage boy who feigned romantic interest in a 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier. Megan 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, Mo., was named in a four-count indictment returned last week 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.
“This adult woman allegedly used the Internet to target a young teenage girl, with horrendous ramifications,” U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien said. “After a thorough investigation, we have charged Ms. Drew with criminally accessing MySpace and violating rules established to protect young, vulnerable people. Any adult who uses the Internet or a social-gathering Web site to bully or harass another person, particularly a young teenage girl, needs to realize that their actions can have serious consequences.
There’s no question that this was a tragedy and that what Drew did was cruel, mean-spirited, and childish, but should that be something you can go to jail for ?
Jacob Sullum argues that it shouldn’t:
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, O’Brien has twisted a law aimed at fraud, spying, vandalism, and child pornography into an excuse to punish a woman everyone hates.
And Radley Balko agrees:
Drew is an awful person, and clearly needs some psychological help. But come on. If what she did is a crime, then the millions of people who’ve ever fibbed on a MySpace or Facebook profile have committed crimes, too. All this proves is that the federal criminal code is vast and vague enough that no matter what you’ve done, some politically ambitious U.S. attorney hungry for some publicity can figure out a way to charge you.
Guess what, folks? Sometimes really, really awful things happen. They just do. It’s time we accepted that, and stopped looking to pass reactionary laws or invent crimes to pin on someone every time a sad story hits the Internets.
I’ve got to say that I agree with Sullum and Balko. What Drew did was horrid and deserving of condemnation. Frankly, her parents should consider suing the woman civilly if they haven’t done so already.
But there’s no reason to turn stupidity into a crime just because there were tragic consequences this one time.