The Case of Megan Meier: Law, Journalism, Tragedy and Irony

Photo: Megan MeierThe Case:
The tragic story of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old St. Louis-area girl who committed suicide after being harassed on MySpace, has grabbed national headlines and inspired thousands of web readers to participate in a collective sorting of legal and ethical issues surrounding the case.

Meier met a 16-year-old named “Josh Evans” on MySpace. Her mother reluctantly gave permission to add Josh as a friend and visit with him online. They became close, but he suddenly turned on her, calling her names, saying she was “a bad person and everybody hates you.” Others joined the harassment, and the barrage culminated in Meier’s Oct. 16, 2006, suicide, just short of her 14th birthday.

Weeks later, Meier’s parents learned the boy didn’t exist—he’d been fabricated by a neighbor, Lori Drew, the mother of one of Meier’s former friends. The girls had had a falling-out, police say, and Drew wanted to know what Meier was saying about her daughter. Local police and the FBI investigated, but more than a year later, no criminal charges had been filed. Then things escalated.

The Media Response:
In what could only be called cosmic irony, the local media refused to name the neighbor who had pretended to be Josh Evans in order to protect that woman’s daughter from … social ridicule. Several blogs picked up the trail and investigated, quickly identifying Drew and publishing her contact information. This opened the first area of debate: online shaming–pro or con?

As the story gained national coverage, organizations such as ABC News came down on the side of putting names and faces to the story. Ironically, the network that brings us Desperate Housewives went so far as to put real neighbors on Good Morning America, giving the story exceptional coverage.

The Legislative Response: Do Hard Cases Make Bad Laws?
Local police said no laws were broken. In fact, St. Charles County prosecuting attorney Jack Banas did not review the case until it gained national visibility.

Reacting to the tragedy and attention, the six-member Dardenne Prairie, Mo., Board of Aldermen made Internet harassment a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail. (Read the resolution.)

The four-page measure defines both harassment and cyber-harassment, essentially making it illegal to engage in a pattern of conduct that would cause a reasonable person to suffer “substantial emotional distress,” or for an adult to contact a child under 18 in a communication causing a reasonable parent to fear for the child’s well-being.
Associated Press

I find it interesting that the ordinance poses an “reasonable parent” test, rather than a “reasonable person” one. Does this imply a difference in community standards? Could we expect “reasonable police officer” tests or “reasonable teacher” tests in other areas of the law?

David Ardia of the Citizen Media Law Project blogs that “Generally speaking, the government may ban speech in this context only if it will clearly cause direct and imminent harm. Because the Dardenne Prairie ordinance appears to criminalize otherwise protected speech (for example, pure opinion), it is likely to be unconstitutional.”

Can Current Laws Be Applied?
Numerous legal theories have been advanced by bloggers such as by Tim Peterson’s News Lawyer, which suggests the application of a tort law concept known as the “eggshell skull,” where those committing torts are responsible for all consequences flowing from the injurious acts, even if the victim suffers unusually high damages from the acts.

What About Liability?
This started with Megan Meier setting up an a MySpace account, which involved misrepresenting her age; 13 is below the age set in MySpace’s terms of use agreement. Her mother was aware of the account, and though she supervised its use, she allowed it. Is MySpace liable for making underage use too easy?

How Responsible Was Megan?
Your thoughts on any of these questions are welcome. I’ll end this post the incendiary suggestion of personal responsibility from what may itself be a “sock puppet” blog, Megan Had it Coming.

When the grief counselor came to our school last year and spoke to us, she said over and over again that Megan’s death was the fault of nobody but Megan. No matter who was feeling guilty, or who thought they should have known something or said something or not said something


Megan was old enough to get on MySpace, create a fake profile to attract guys, but yet she’s not old enough to take a few insults in one SINGLE afternoon? […] The parents who tricked her were being rude, yes, but if I were them, I would not feel guilty.

The parents involved were far beyond rude. There were perhaps the worst parents on the planet. But there are several steps necessary to link them to this terrible death. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the people who did the stupid thing are responsible for the terrible act which followed.

Please feel free to comment, your ideas are welcome.

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