Cyber bullying: Harm vs. Free Speech

October 27, 2011

Political Theory


Megan Taylor Meier (November 6, 1992 – October 17, 2006)

Her name was Megan Taylor Meier. She had just started eighth grade at a new school when she decided to break off her friendship with a girl down the street. Yet, amid  all of those changes, Megan was the happiest she had ever been because she had met a cute sixteen year old boy on Myspace named Josh who was new to the area. Josh was the perfect Myspace boyfriend. The two formed a quick connection during their month-long relationship. Until one night, out of the blue, Josh told Megan that he didn’t want to talk to her anymore because “Everybody knows how you are. You’re a bad person and everybody hates you.” He then said, “Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you. ” She responded with a message saying, “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.” Megan Meier took her own life that night. Six weeks later, Megan’s parents found out that Josh never existed. The mother of the girl that Megan used to be friends with, Lori Drew, had created him to get back at Megan for not being her daughter’s friend anymore. Her tragic suicide was the result of cyber bullying, an act that, in today’s technological era, has become increasingly more common and can have devastating effects.

Cyber bullying involves the use of information and communication technologies that augment deliberate, repeated, hostile behaviors (by an individual or a group) that are intended to harm someone. Perpetrators of cyber bullying have a vast range of interactive tools at their disposal such as instant messaging, cell phones, social networks, and cyber bashing web sites that can be used to harm a victim.These behaviors include, but are not limited to harassment, denigration, and cyberstalking. Harassment is a term used to describe what is perhaps the most common form of cyber bullying, involving cruel or offensive messages  sent to somebody. Denigration implies posting untrue information about a person to hurt or sabotage the target’s reputation or friendships. This may be in the form of slightly altered photos of someone or online slam web pages. Cyberstalking is a particularly scary form of cyber bullying that involves continuously sending messages including threats of harm.

Cyber bullying is a non-stop form of harassment that can create a sense of helplessness

The long term impact of cyber bullying has a much greater potential for harm than traditional bullying. Digital images, slam pages, and other electronic means can travel at an instantaneous speed and reach a potentially limitless number of people. Unlike traditional bullying episodes that are limited to a school community, harmful texts and images associated with cyber bullying have the power to communicate to an unlimited audience in seconds. There is a direct correlation between the audience size and the potential for humility. Thus, cyber bullying has the capability of causing a more traumatic experience to the victim than does traditional bullying.

According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” And although online speech is entitled to the same protection as traditional speech under this amendment, the right to speak freely is not always given. In some situations, if a student’s speech is considered a serious threat, schools must respond to the situation and discipline the  cyber bullying student. Failing to do so may result in an expensive lawsuit, or  in a worst-case scenario, the death of another student. This presents a touchy dilemma to school officials: if they respond to the online threats and discipline a student, they may be in violation of that student’s first amendment rights; if they sit back and do nothing, they may have to face a serious law suit.

Perhaps the real question here concerns the idea of harm versus speech. Could Lori Drew’s actions be considered harmful, and if so, is she a murderer? Or was Megan’s interpretation of Drew’s speech the real cause of her tragic suicide? Furthermore, what is harm in this case? Should slandering/labeling someone, or messing with someone’s psychological state be considered a harmful act? If it is does, is it time for the court system to reevaluate the punishments for these types of actions? It’s evident that cyber bullying poses potentially more dangerous effects than traditional bullying. Could it be justified to lift the term “bullying” and replace it with a more serious term such as “abuse”? Lori Drew was ultimately acquitted of all 4 charges against her, however, the Missouri state legislature is currently testing an anti-cyber bullying law known as the “Megan Meier Cyber bullying Prevention Act.” If passed, this law will criminalize the use of phone or internet by anyone 21 years old or older to cause emotional distress to anyone 17 years old or younger. Should this law be declared unconstitutional based on the freedom of speech?

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13 Comments on “Cyber bullying: Harm vs. Free Speech”

  1. benjishanus Says:

    I believe that the Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act should absolutely go into immediate effect. Freedom of SPEECH is one thing, but BULLYING is something entirely different. I think bullying at any age or any extremity is criminal. There have been various studies done on the psychological imact of bullying, many of which have revealed significant short and/or long term effects on the person who was bullied. This megan Meier case is unfortunately just another terrible example pertaining to the potential effects that bullying can have.

    Although this was apparently a case of “cyber” bullying, as opposed to just “bullying”, I think that it is all the same, Cyber Bullying is simply a specific form of bullying which should not the tolerated under any circumstances. Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world where issues such as bullying will likely always be apparent, no matter what steps are taken. However, that does not imply that every possible movement to minimize the cases and the damage should not be taken. I believe that it actually gives a notion that the matter is more urgent and demanding of serious action. I firmly believe that the Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act should go into immediate effect. If death is not enough of a reason to initiative such a law, then I don’t know what is.

  2. namin91 Says:

    This is a very touchy and complicated case of cyber bullying. I, personally, think that the notion of restricting free speech when it’s causing harm is a valid concept, but one that will never be agreed upon. Who is to decide if a certain use of speech if harmful? While I think Lori Drew’s use of free speech was extremely harmful in this case, many would disagree and probably state that her intention was not to get Megan to commit suicide, which I’m sure it wasn’t. But that is where the problem comes in. If free speech causes harm but there was not intent to cause harm, can a person really be prosecuted? I don’t think it’s a question that will ever be fully resolved, but it is definitely one worth examining closely.

    I think the Prevention Act you mentioned is very interesting and one worth trying out. I think there have been too many cases of cyber bullying that have led to suicides for there not to be some sort of law or act against it. There comes a point when the government has to say enough is enough, and in my opinion, we are well beyond that point. While this case is complicated, I think there are so many cases in which the bullying is very blatant and harm is the intent of the bullies. In those cases, something needs to be done to punish their actions.

    • Steve Dougherty Says:

      > Who is to decide if a certain use of speech if harmful?

      Absolutely. This is the heart of it.

      The separation between what constitutes action and what constitutes speech can be unclear: sending messages is speech, yet harassment is an action. This is only a different way of presenting the question of when speech is harmful, so framing it like this isn’t as helpful as I’d like. It could be tempting to say that if someone is materially and harmfully affected by someone’s words they are considered harassment, but that definition could be subject to abuse as well. Coming up with good definitions and institutions is very difficult, and there’s always the worry that the system will be abused. I wonder if the goal here is something that’s not really possible: people have absolute freedom of speech, yet if others are unduly affected by malicious speech the protection vanishes. This seems self-contradictory, and that one of the protections will have to be weakened. Which do we value more?

  3. maryblee Says:

    A few cases of anti-bullying legislation have made the news lately, but they have been widely disputed, not for being freedom of speech violations, but for being almost impossible to enforce. There is no standard measurement to determine when actions cross from playful to harmful and as a result the legislation can end up going one of two ways: either ignored or hyper-imposed on trivial situations. Helicopter parents may all be for the hyper-application of anti-bullying laws, but at least equal numbers of parents from the school of hard knocks would argue that teaching kids to stand up for themselves only helps them in the long run.

    Cyber bullying is slightly different from traditional bullying in that it affords the bully more anonymity and ability to psychologically torment , but it also allows the victim to simply turn it off. And so the same issues arise as those over traditional bullying. Not only is the harm equally as hard to identify (Mill even notes this, albeit not in regards to cyber bullying, he wasn’t that ahead of his time), it is also possible to deal with without law enforcement.

    If the government does decide to step into this arena, Mill’s harm principal must be applicable, but we can clearly see the problem in identifying bullying. And so the question comes down to whether or not the harm outweighs the significant possibility that government interference will ultimately be useless.

    • clinthng Says:

      I agree with this comment completely. I think it’s harder to enforce anti-bullying legislation because it’s hard to pin when bullying might lead to suicide. It’s even harder on the internet; cyber-bulliers have an easier time getting away with malice because it’s an entirely different realm. Online, there are things known as “trolls” which are people who are mean for their own benefit, but their malice is sarcastic and not reflective of their actual views.

      Effective prevention of suicides such as Megan does not start with restricting free-speech and not-quantifiable legislation, it comes from the parents; parents need to monitor what goes on in their kids life. Whether it’s unplugging them from the internet or secretly friending them on Facebook, parental control is the only way to truly prevent this from happening.

  4. ngamin1614 Says:

    I think Mill said something like free speech is always good UNLESS it harms someone. Certainly we can all see that what this mother did harmed this teenage girl. This mother’s intent was to get back at Megan for not being friends with her daughter anymore. Are you kidding me? Personally, I cannot believe a mother would go this far to just get back at someone for not being friends with her daughter anymore, but that’s not really the point. Anyways, as the post says, the mother wanted to get back at Megan. She wanted to harm Megan in some way to get back at Megan for not being friends with her daughter anymore. It’s really unbelievable. This woman went in with the purpose of harming Megan and was acquitted?! It’s freaking ridiculous in my opinion. It was this mother’s fault that Megan killed herself. If this mother hadn’t created this boyfriend over myspace, Megan would never committed suicide. The cause of the suicide is squarely on the mother’s shoulders here, so yes, I think that this mother should have been charged with murder.

    I personally believe that screwing with someone psychologically is just as bad as messing with someone physically. As we can see here, the psychological effects were just as damaging as any physical effect. Anything that disturbs someone’s peace of mind, in my opinion, could be labeled as harmful. That may sound a bit overdramatic but I truly think that when someone’s peace of mind is taken away, they have been harmed, but again, that’s just my opinion. So, if you couldn’t tell already, I’m all for this Megan Meier Cyber-Bullying Act. Sure, now people cannot say whatever they want online, but this act would help get rid of all harmful speech online and may prevent cases like this one.

  5. godzillagti Says:

    There are factors of this question which could change a lot in society. The biggest one is freedom of speech. I am a firm believer that citizens of the United States should have the freedom to say whatever they want. Personally, laws on cyber bullying is another way that the government is going to hinder my freedom of speech. However, U.S. citizens don’t necessarily have 100% freedom of speech anyways. As seen from the famous, Schenck v. United States Supreme Court case, citizens can’t use language that could possibly threaten someone’s life such as shouting fire in a crowded theatre.
    (http://www.infoplease.com/us/supreme-court/cases/ar37.html)
    So according to this case, cyber bullying can threaten someone’s life and therefore should fall into the similar category as in Schenck. That being said, I do believe that Lori Drew’s actions do make her responsible for Megan’s death. She harmed Megan with her words so much that she had to take her own life. I don’t feel that the court should necessarily “reevaluate” this type of case, but I feel that they should put it into the same category as that of Schenck.

  6. wjpetok24 Says:

    This story is absolutely heartbreaking given the fact of Megan’s death being preventable. The issue of cyber-bullying is one that has gone on for nearly 2 decades now and must be handled diligently. While the events that caused Megan’s death aren’t fully conclusive, I’d have to say that the actions of Lori Drew are unforgivable, but I wouldn’t go so far as to consider her a murderer. The fact that her actions caused Megan’s death is painful, but it more of a societal problem than an individual issue.

    Regardless of the fact that Lori Drew was acquitted, substantial progress can still be made with the enactment of the act deterring emotional distress towards young adolescents. It is a true shame that Drew wasn’t made an example of, clearly taking advantage of young Megan and influencing her young mind into irrational thoughts over a petty issue. However, the response from Megan’s death shouldn’t be undermined. With the right amount of rallying and support, Congress could be forced into action and fulfill their obligation to protecting our youth from cases such as this.

  7. marckarpinos31 Says:

    To start I think this is a very powerful story that you open up the blog with. When I read that story I was taken back and shocked at how immature people can be. Cyber bullying is definitely a major issue that had been brought up at my school as early as elementary school when students discovered AIM and continued through High School through the use of Facebook. Unfortunately, technology creates a barrier between people that allows them to say whatever they want, regardless of whether or not they would say it in a face to face interaction and people learn that at a young age.

    While I understand the need for all of the proposals you present in your last paragraph, I can’t see this ever working. For starters the court system is going to be over run with cyber bullying cases when as harsh as it may seem, being mean is not a crime. It is also difficult to decide what constitutes “messing with someone’s psychological state” as everyone has a different level of sensitivity.

    All in all I think you hit upon a topic that was extremely important and does need to be dealt with but to this point I don’t think we have found the right way to deal with it.

    • bmjasper Says:

      Thanks for your comment marckarpinos31. While being mean isn’t a crime, verbal harassment is. And while it may be quite difficult to define what constitutes messing with one’s psychological state, the potential for harm by cyber bullying is much greater than that of traditional bullying. Therefore, it deserves to be treated more seriously, similarly to the way we treat harassment. I agree with you that it is difficult to grasp how someone might interpret actions without face-to-face communication, however, it is quite obvious to interpret one’s harmful intentions. This is where instilling some sort of law might have success.

  8. albosco Says:

    Taking note of the comment right above mine, I completely agree that cyber bullying is much more harmful and needs to treated more seriously. Sometimes it may be difficult to determine if someone is using the internet or another form of technology in a purposely harmful manner, but I think in the case of Megan Meier, it was clear that Lori Drew was purposely trying to hurt Megan. If not, what would the mother have gained from pretending to be a 16 year old boy? A few laughs? Even so, that is not appropriate behavior of an adult, of someone who is supposed to be a role model in the community. Purposely creating a relationship with someone and then using your connection to tell them that the world would be a better place without them seems pretty clear what Lori Drew had in mind. I completely agree that the Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act should be given a chance.

    I realize that it would be very difficult for monitor cyber bullying and that the debate of whether it is constitutional or not will probably continue forever. However if the government cannot do anything to stop it, there are other ways to try and prevent cyber bullying. For example, parents should be aware of what their children are doing on the internet (obviously this doesn’t apply to immature people like Lori Drew), and be sure that they are being respectful of their peers. Also, high schools and middle schools should have a strict cyber bullying policy. I went to a private high school that did not tolerate any cyber bullying and if there were ever any complaints, the student’s parents were involved and they were immediately suspended. Some people thought this rule was a little harsh, but it sure prevented anyone from using the internet or phones to harass other students and it may have even saved some lives.

  9. weinben Says:

    The First Amendment guarantees free speech in the sense one can voice his or her own opinion about almost any subject. However, speech or action which infringes upon an individual’s natural, god given right to pursue happiness and which causes harm is also not technically allowed, as well. In the case of bullying, or cyber bulling, in this case, the bully’s speech should not be protected. His actions are intended to hurt and harm the victim, not to promote a certain cause or passion, or even to voice a rational and insightful opinion. When an action or speech’s intent is pain or harm, then it directly impacts an individual’s right to happiness and thus is not a legitimate form of ‘free speech.’
    In this specific case, however, there is more to it than to simply label Lori Drew a murderer. If a girl would kill herself over an internet relationship, then it seems obvious she is mentally unstable or has some psychological issues which were not dealt with. Bullying has occurred throughout the history of man, when one party uses force, aggression, coercion and cruelty to gain its own want or cause pain in others for its own sake. Megan Meier’s reaction to this, however, seems bizarre, considering she never even met her online boyfriend in person. Perhaps the blurred line between reality and the internet-world is partially to blame as well? People can now essentially live on the internet and foster relationships so deep they might as well resemble real life interaction. But one must realize that communication, no matter what form it is in, still is communication, and whether it occurs online or not it inspires deep emotions within people. And it is for this reason that Anti-Cyber Bullying acts and laws are not unconstitutional.

    • bmjasper Says:

      Thanks for your comment. You make a really interesting point about there existing a potentially dangerous, and vague, line between reality and cyberspace. I agree. I think that our generation has grown so dependent on the internet that people often forget that there are differences between direct (face-to-face) communication and online communication. Part of the reason for this vague line is because we have moved away from direct communication with our increased usage of technology (texting, instant messaging, blogging, etc.).

      With direct communication, if someone were to say something offense to another person, they would instantly be able tell, by that person’s body language or facial expression, that their words have caused harm. With online communication, these social cues cease to exist. People need to keep in mind that although they cannot see the person on the other side of their computer screen, that person is there and is more vulnerable than ever.

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