Megan Meier Tragedy Inspires Questionable Legal Responses

Do hard cases make bad laws?

Photo: Megan MeierThe law continues to grapple with the tragedy of Megan Meier, the 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after allegedly being harassed on MySpace by the parent of a friend posing as a teenage boy.

Some localities have passed constitutionally questionable ordinances to make online conduct by an adult that would concern a “reasonable parent” a misdemeanor. 

Now federal prosecutors in LA have convened a grand jury, and begun issuing subpoenas. They are reportedly exploring the possibility of leveling charges against Lori Drew, the parent who may have perpetrated this tragic hoax. 

Why LA Prosecutors?
Though the participants in this story all live in the St. Louis area, MySpace is based in Beverly Hills. So the LA prosecutors are reportedly considering MySpace to be the victim of fraud by Lori Drew, who set up an account as a fictitious person. This of course immediately raises several issues.

Many people create deceptive profiles on online services. One of them, ironically, was Megan Meier, who was below the age required in MySpace’s terms of use, and, like Lori Drew, also lied to MySpace in establishing her profile.

So this is clearly a highly selective prosecution, and it is taking place without a complaint from MySpace. It would potentially criminalize the common practice of setting up free accounts, using fictitious information, in order to engage in anonymous speech.

Is there fraud, and who is the victim?
Lori Drew’s alleged lies to a teenager were a tragic hoax. However, that doesn’t legally constitute fraud, which typically requires deception with a motive to damage a victim. So prosecutors are attempting to use wire-fraud laws to claim Drew deceived and damaged MySpace.

But is MySpace a victim of fraud? 
Or are they responsible for the systems that allowed both parties in this story to create misrepresentations? Is the company a victim or a responsible party? The company is wisely keeping alow profile, so as not to become the story.

Bad parenting is legal
The problem here may be that bad parenting can have tragic results, but for the most part it can’t be criminalized. The acts ascribed Lori Drew suggests she’s either the world’s most overinvolved parent, or she’s covering for her teenage daughter. Meanwhile, Megan Meier’s parents knew their daughter, who was reportedly being treated for depression, was flirting online with a boy three years her senior.

Adults shouldn’t deceive children by pretending to be their peers online. Perhaps that could be specifically addressed in federal law. But, sadly, the legal response so far has been too generalized and too broad to be enforced in a way that could benefit other families. Other than for a chilling effect on legal speech, the current legal response seems likely to have little real benefit at all.

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