Mo. lawmakers vote to bar Internet harassment

By The Associated Press

Editor’s note: A report that Gov. Matt Blunt had signed S.B. 818 into law on June 6 was erroneous. He signed it June 30.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Responding to the suicide of a Missouri teenager who was teased over the Internet, state lawmakers on May 16 gave final approval to a bill making cyber harassment illegal.

The bill updates state laws against harassment to keep pace with technology by removing the requirement that the communication be written or over the telephone. Supporters say the bill will now cover harassment from computers, text messages and other electronic devices.

It was approved 106-23 in the House and 34-0 in the Senate and now goes to the governor. Republican Gov. Matt Blunt issued a statement praising lawmakers for passing the measure.

"Social networking sites and technology have opened a new door for criminals and bullies to prey on their victims," he said. "These protections ensure that our laws now have the protections and penalties needed to safeguard Missourians from Internet harassment."

Many of the bill's provisions came from a special gubernatorial task force that studied Internet harassment after the news media reported last fall on the details of Megan Meier's suicide. Police say the 13-year-old St. Charles County girl hanged herself in 2006 after being teased on a social networking Web site. A neighborhood mother, her 18-year-old employee and 13-year-old daughter are accused of creating a fake profile of an attractive teen boy to find out what Meier was saying about the daughter online. The mother, Lori Drew, 49, was indicted in California May 15 on federal counts of conspiracy and accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress on the teen. An attorney for Drew said a legal challenge was being planned.

Missouri police didn't file any charges against Drew in part because there was no applicable state law. Sen. Scott Rupp said May 16 that there was no way to be sure his legislation would have guaranteed a conviction, but it would have allowed prosecutors to continue investigating without having to ship the case to a different state.

"Without a good, quality cyber stalking and harassment law, which we don't currently have, we have to go to federal courts in other states," said Rupp, R-Wentzville. State Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis, said the law was "definitely a warning shot for those folks who want to use the Internet for harassment."

There was no immediate response from Meier's parents, Tina and Ron Meier. Tina Meier earlier this year testified before a Senate committee urging lawmakers to pass the bill.

Under Rupp's bill, repeat offenders and anyone who is at least 21 years old could be charged with a felony and face up to four years in prison if they harass a minor. Other instances of harassment would remain a misdemeanor with penalties of up to a year in jail.

The bill also requires school officials to tell police about harassment and stalking on school grounds. And it expands state laws against stalking to cover "credible threats" not only against the victim, but also against family and household members and animals.

Currently, stalking is a misdemeanor, but the bill would let someone be charged with a felony and face up to four years in prison for stalking more than once, making "credible threats," violating a court protection order and violating probation or parole by stalking.