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MySpace Verdict a Danger To Depressed Kids 502

Slashdot regular Bennett Haselton summarizes his essay this way: "Debate over the Lori Drew verdict has focused overwhelmingly on whether the ruling was technically correct, but there is another serious issue: the perverse incentives that this ruling creates for victims of online harassment." Read on for his essay.

Since a jury convicted Lori Drew of three misdemeanors for harassing Megan Meier on MySpace and causing her to commit suicide, most of the debate has focused on the question of whether proper legal procedure was followed in an attempt to punish someone for their obviously evil actions, when it wasn't clear that an actual crime had been committed. Emily Bazelon has argued that the rule of law is too important to convict someone for a crime for what was essentially a violation of the MySpace Terms of Service. Anne Mitchell has argued that the slippery slope is nowhere near as dangerous as the backlash is making it sound, because the doctrine of prosecuting people for violating a site's TOS is almost certainly only going to be used against people who commit horrific acts in the process, as Lori Drew did.

I'm more inclined toward the rule of law argument, but hang on — both sides seem to be assuming that it was a desirable outcome to punish Lori Drew publicly and severely. Hell yes she deserved it, but there is more at stake here. What about the consequences for kids who are current victims of harassment and who hear about the case and the verdict?

When anti-cyber-bullying laws were proposed in response to the original news of Megan Meier's suicide, I argued that the laws would be a terrible idea, especially if the criminal provisions of the law were conditional on the bullying victim harming themselves — because then you've created told victims of harassment: You can have your tormentors publicly vilified and even arrested, but only if you make it look like you tried to injure or kill yourself (and at which you might succeed in the process, intentionally or not).

What would be true of a cyber-bulling law is also true for the pseudo-caselaw created by the verdict. Surely there are other Megan Meiers out there who should not be led to believe that they can ruin their harasser's lives by committing suicide.

Now you might argue that by my reasoning, existing harassment laws which are contingent on the victim showing signs of emotional distress, could lead to the same problem — victims either consciously faking distress, or trying to fake distress so convincingly that they actually harm themselves, or subconsciously absorbing the fact that they can only get justice if they actually show harm. I had actually assumed that existing harassment laws governed only the conduct of the harasser, and did not depend on how the victim felt, but I was wrong — here in Washington State for example, RCW 10.14 states that harassing conduct is conduct that

"shall be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress,
and shall actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner." [emphasis added]

Reading that literally means that no matter how bad the harassment is, you still have to feel distressed in order to have them prosecuted, and the more distressed you "act," the more likely you are to succeed! But hang on — in order for that law to create incentives for victims of harassment to fake distress in order to have their personal enemies prosecuted, they would have to actually know that the law says that. I doubt that most people walking around Washington know the exact wording of the harassment law. More likely, they already realize that if they were to ever try and have someone prosecuted for harassment who didn't actually deserve it, a little tears and shaking would probably influence the judge, whether or not their feelings had any technical relevance under the law. And even if they were to exaggerate the effects of the harassment, all they would have to do would be to claim that they threw up or lost sleep from anxiety — they wouldn't have to show evidence of trying to harm or kill themselves.

On the other hand, everybody has heard about the Lori Drew and Megan Meier case, and it seems likely that the fact that Megan killed herself did contribute to the conviction. (At one point Judge George H. Wu had said that he would probably exclude evidence from the trial that Megan Meier had committed suicide as a result of the harassment, but later changed his mind and did allow it to be mentioned, saying "It's impossible to get a jury that doesn't know.") If Megan Meier had merely lost sleep, or suffered from panic attacks, or cut herself as a result of the harassment she endured from Lori Drew, would Drew have been convicted? Or even arrested?

These perverse incentives — "rewarding" Megan Meier for her suicide by vicariously exacting her revenge on Lori Drew — have been present ever since the wall-to-wall coverage of the case first started. Many news outlets have a policy of not publishing the names of suicide victims, not only to protect the privacy of grieving families but to avoid "rewarding" suicides by giving them the attention they may have wanted. The Associated Press Statement of News Values and Principles does not list any policy against printing the names of suicides. Maybe they should. (They do have a policy against printing the names of sexual assault victims, for example.) But it's a slippery journalistic slope to go down once you start deciding not to publish certain elements of a story, even for what seem to be compelling reasons. For example, take the policy of not publishing the names of alleged rape victims. If the rationale is that the AP doesn't want to cause unfair embarrassment to the alleged victims in case their story is true, why wouldn't the AP also avoid publishing the name of the defendant, to avoid causing them vastly greater unfair embarrassment in case the victim's story is false? So any decision to leave someone's name out of a story can lead to sticky "but-then-what-about" scenarios.

Perhaps the story should not have been covered at all, or anywhere near as much as it was. (I realize I may be contributing to the problem here, but my penance is that I'm calling for less coverage in the future, and I would never be writing about this if the mainstream media hadn't covered it so extensively.) What about all the other people who committed suicide during the same year, also as a result of vicious harassment, but with the only difference being that their suicides did not involve the Internet? Don't they deserve the same justice, and don't their tormentors deserve the same vilification?

Defenders of Internet civil liberties have for years been disgusted with the fact that crimes involving the Internet — from simple identity theft to rape and murder — have always gotten disproportionately more attention than the same or similar crimes committed without the aid of a computer. In the Megan Meier case, the effect of the coverage is even worse: Leading potential suicides to believe that they can have the sympathy they always wanted, and revenge on those they hate, if they kill themselves.

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MySpace Verdict a Danger To Depressed Kids

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  • by snowgirl ( 978879 ) * on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:11PM (#26135877) Journal

    If the rationale is that the AP doesn't want to cause unfair embarrassment to the alleged victims in case their story is true, why wouldn't the AP also avoid publishing the name of the defendant, to avoid causing them vastly greater unfair embarrassment in case the victim's story is false?

    Excellent quote. You jest, but take into account this true story: my buddy who was 21 at the time was in a sexual relationship with a 17 year old whose father(who was a Sheriff) allowed it, even inviting my buddy to go on camping trips with them and allowing them their own tent.

    After an abortion, the relationship turned sour, and my buddy was arrested shortly afterward for statutory rape. Only his name and the crime he was being charged with appeared in the paper. Bad news given the conservative, small-town lynch-mob environment. Though the charges were dropped after he posted bail, his rep was ruined all because of a petty revenge stunt with connections to law enforcement. The media are ruthless and they value sensation above all else.

    So, what are you trying to say here? That a person commits statutory rape, (by your own admission you state this to be true) and is then arrested for it, and suffers consequences for it?

    Here's a hint... parental consent to statutory rape does not make it any less illegal.

    The charges were probably dropped because the sheriff could have been brought up on child neglect. However, again... by your own statement, THE CRIME HAPPENED.

    Let this be a lesson to anyone... just because someone is looking the other way when seeing you do something doesn't mean that it wasn't illegal or criminal in the first place.

  • Re:I have to agree (Score:4, Informative)

    by sabs ( 255763 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:15PM (#26135937)

    Actually, inciting someone to commit suicide is a crime if they actually succeed, or even if they don't apperently.

    From the New York state legal code.
    "A person who willfully, in any manner, advises, encourages, abets or assists another person in taking the latter's life, is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree." Section 2305 adds that incitement is a felony ever if the would-be suicide survives.

  • by gpw213 ( 691600 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:18PM (#26135981)

    Seriously, what kind of ASSHOLE CHAUVINISTIC PIG would say that the person alleged of sexual assault should it not be true would be WORSE off than the victim were it true?

    Read it again. He didn't say that at all. He said that the embarrassment of being publicly identified as a victim of sexual assault is less than the embarrassment of being publicly accused of being the assaulter. He was comparing the results of publication, not of the crime itself.

  • by buddyglass ( 925859 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:25PM (#26136093)

    One lesson is: gather evidence that would demonstrate the dad was okay with it. If he then tries to go after you for the fact that the girl was underage, you can produce evidence that makes him party to the crime since he knew about it and approved.

    That said, I'm guessing the poster's story isn't 100% accurate. In many (most?) states its perfectly legal to sleep with a 17 year old regardless of the age difference. The additional lesson to be had: know the laws in your state. That lesson also applies to laws concerning recording without permission, as described above.

  • by snowgirl ( 978879 ) * on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:43PM (#26136365) Journal

    snowgirl, if you're ok with some guy who was previously in a loving relationship with a girl, with the consent of her family, having his life destroyed because the relationship turns sour, then you're not over whatever it was that happened to you.

    The guy the GP referred to, does not deserve your misplaced anger and wish for retribution. The guy who assaulted you does.

    Best of luck.

    Right, because I'm a hysterical female, right? (BTW, look up the etymology of hysterical some time.)

    No. The person was committing a crime, statutory rape is preempted by other rape charges if it were to so happen. It doesn't matter about the person's consent or not, and it's well established that a parent cannot consent their child to have sex.

    The girl was unable to provide the necessary consent, and it was thus *shock* a crime. He shouldn't be shocked at being arrested for it, and no one should. However, he should feel lucky that he didn't get sent to jail for it.

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:56PM (#26136557) Homepage

    Speech can definitely be a crime:
    "Fire!" at the wrong time or context.

    "Let's go kill all the [insert ethnic or religious group]!" and obviously meaning it.

    "If you don't give me enough money, I'll tell the world who you slept with on Thursday."

    "If you vote for anyone other than John Jackson, I'll kill you."

    You get the idea. Just because it's speech (online or otherwise) doesn't mean it can't be criminal.

  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @04:06PM (#26136697) Homepage Journal

    Right, because I'm a hysterical female, right?

    "Methinks doth protest too much". I didn't see anywhere where that was even hinted at. and I think you're completely missing his point. What if his incredibly dimwitted buddy had been innocent? Look at the Duke University LaCrosse players case from last year. A stripper (who was probably a prostitute, every stripper I ever met would take money for sex) falsly claimed that five guys raped her.

    The five who were falsly accused had their names dragged through the mud, their teams' name was dragged through the mud (IIRC they even disbanded the team for a while), while the slut's not even mentioned, even though the true victims were the men she lied about.

    His point was, again, if you're innocent until proven guilty, why do they publish the suspect's name but not the victim's? Seems fair to me that nobody's name should show up until there's a conviction, or everybody's should.

  • by sckeener ( 137243 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @05:09PM (#26137561)

    Here's a hint... parental consent to statutory rape does not make it any less illegal.

    depends on the state.

    In many states the laws are different with parental consent. Check out the marriage laws by state []

    I believe there was an example above that said California requires all parties to be 18 or older and that isn't true with parental consent. There is no age limit with parental consent.

    You might be asking why I am bringing up marriage. Well in Houston there was a case that involved an illegal immigrant who was living with his girlfriend at her home in her room. She was 13 and he was 17*. The judge ruled that since the couple were living together with parental consent that it constituted a common law marriage. Thus no statutory rape because the couple were common law married because of parental consent.

    * This was before the polygamist sect moved to Texas and we changed our laws. Before they came, the age limit was 12 for girls and 13 for boys with parental or judges consent.

  • Re:Insurance (Score:3, Informative)

    by Jherek Carnelian ( 831679 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @06:01PM (#26138205)

    Since I have insurance I have every motivation to leave the keys in the ignition of my car when I go into a supermarket shopping, right?

    Terrible analogy, for these reasons:
    1) You have a deductible - that's money out of your pocket
    2) Your car insurance is for "fair market value" not "replacement value" - if your car is not average - i.e. it is a beater or it is modified or it is just extremely well cared for - the insurance check may not be enough to cover the cost of an equivalent-to-you replacement
    3) Having your car stolen is a PITA - lots of hassle and rigmarole before you are made whole, that's time and money wasted

    So, no you do not have every motivation to leave the keys in the car, in fact you have plenty of incentives to take reasonable steps to prevent its theft.

  • by yali ( 209015 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @08:00PM (#26139663)

    Where is this "scientific fact" that you speak of? The only "emotionally unstable" teens that I've read about...

    If you search Google or Google Scholar for "teen brain development" you will find some relevant information. Like this [] or this [] or if you've got access, stuff like this [].

    A lot of scientific attention has focused on charting the ongoing physical maturation of the frontal lobes through adolescence and even into early adulthood. The frontal lobes are involved in executive functioning [], which includes things like self-regulation and impulse control. The frontal lobes are also involved in self-monitoring [], which interestingly ties back to the grandparent poster's statement:

    I'm sure you didn't think you were emotionally unstable, teens generally don't, doesn't mean you weren't.

  • by Phroggy ( 441 ) <.slashdot3. .at.> on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @11:50PM (#26141539) Homepage

    One lesson is: gather evidence that would demonstrate the dad was okay with it. If he then tries to go after you for the fact that the girl was underage, you can produce evidence that makes him party to the crime since he knew about it and approved.

    The lesson is, it doesn't matter if her dad was OK with it or not. The charges were dropped, he was never convicted of a crime. Producing evidence that he was OK with it wouldn't have saved his reputation.

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