Regular Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton has cyber-bullying on his mind; that and the laws proposed to deal with it. His article begins: "The authors of most of the recently proposed anti-cyberbullying laws have been invoking the tragic case of Megan Meier, the 13-year-old girl who committed suicide in 2006 after being harassed online by an adult neighbor posing as a cute 16-year-old boy. Unlike the bluster of politicians grandstanding to outlaw swearing on the Internet, the outrage and frustration of lawmakers in this case is at least understandable, especially after the FBI announced that the family that created the phony profile and caused Megan's suicide could not be charged with any crime. But the focus on Megan's case raises two questions: (a) whether it is fair to invoke Megan in the name of passing the laws, and (b) whether the laws are a good idea in general." Read more below.
For once, the invoking of the teenage victim of online stalking is probably not completely cynical. Sometimes, it is. In 2002, after 13-year-old cheerleader Christina Long was apparently killed by someone she met online, politicians purported to honor her memory by passing the "Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act" to create the .kids.us domain space exclusively for content aimed at children 12 and under. Nobody with an ounce of sense could have truly believed that the existence a .kids.us domain would have prevented Christina Long's death (and certainly not the people who knew the facts of her case, since the police found that she had been actively looking for older sex partners online). In Megan Meier's case, at least the proposed laws are on-topic, and the authors probably really believe they will help. But will they?
Consider two laws proposed by state senators in Megan's home state of Missouri. Senate Bill 762, introduced by Sen. Yvonne Wilson, would require schools to adopt anti-cyberbullying policies. Sen. Scott Rupp has introduced Senate Bill 818, which would prohibit "cyber harassment" defined as conduct which "serves no legitimate purpose, that would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and that actually causes substantial emotional distress to that person", with increased penalties if committed by an adult over 21 against a minor under 17. Obviously the Wilson bill would not have applied in the Meier case, since the harassment was not committed by a real school student, but the bill could have still been inspired by an attempt to prevent future incidents caused by real students. The Rupp bill could apply to any teen-on-teen or even adult-on-adult harassment. So what actual effect would they have?
The Wilson bill punts the question by simply requiring school districts to set up anti-cyberbullying policies, but not specifying what would be prohibited or what the consequences would be. This is not to say that the state legislature should have micro-managed what school districts should prohibit, but there's no way to find fault with a bill that leaves the decisions up to someone else. However, any policy that attempts to regulate off-campus conduct would run into constitutional problems, as most cyber-bullying occurs outside of school (since Facebook and MySpace remain blocked to most students).
That leaves the Rupp bill, which is far more detailed, but still less than specific as far as people being able to read it and know in advance what kind of conduct is prohibited. Would it really criminalize any messages sent between teenagers that led to hurt feelings? The bill says that it does not apply to "constitutionally protected activity", falling into the general category of bills that say "This bill prohibits XYZ except that anything protected by the First Amendment isn't prohibited", supposedly so that people can't say the bill violates the First Amendment, but which really means that nobody knows what's allowed. The bill helpfully explains that "such constitutionally protected activity includes picketing or other organized protests", but since most cyberbullying does not take the form of tormentors sending their targets pictures of picket signs reading "ERIC IS GAY", this still doesn't help to determine what is permitted.
But there's something much more worrisome here. The conduct prohibited in the bill doesn't depend entirely on the message itself; it is restricted to content "that actually causes substantial emotional distress". Presumably this seemed like a good way to target the kinds of messages that caused Megan Meier to kill herself, without also outlawing all the other thousands of "You suck and I don't want to be your friend any more" sent between teenagers every day. But consider from the point of view of a message's recipient: At some point in the future, a victim of cyberbullying might know that other cases of cyberbullying have been prosecuted, but only in cases where they caused the victim "substantial emotional distress". So the law says to the victim: You can strike back against your tormentors, you can ruin their lives and let the world know what they did to you, but only if you harm yourself to prove they really hurt you.
And that's the basic Catch-22 of cyberbullying legislation: You can't prohibit meanness that causes someone to harm themselves, without also prohibiting the basic meanness that many teenagers put up with every day — unless you make the crime contingent on the victim actually harming themselves, in which case you've created hugely perverse incentives for them to do so.
I admit I don't have an easy answer either. The National Crime Prevention Center lists tips for teens to deal with cyberbulling: "(1) Refuse to pass along cyberbullying messages; (2) Tell friends to stop cyberbullying; (3) Block communication with cyberbullies; (4) Report cyberbullying to a trusted adult." Sorry, I'm sure they don't mean well, but if you're a teen and your problem is people saying hurtful things about you online to your friends, this is so unhelpful as to probably leave the victim feeling worse. 1 through 3 don't even address the problem, and "report it to an adult"? Most cyberbullying is not illegal.
So I would take the efforts that schools put into preventing cyberbullying — which may not deter the worst bullies, and which could be unconstitutional as applied to off-campus activity anyway — and reinvest them into teaching kids to deal with it: the self-esteem building programs which are much derided as political correctness run amok, but which can be judged a success if they help build resistance to bullying. Above all, put as much emphasis on tracking the results of esteem building programs, as on tracking the results of regular academic programs, so that statistics can be used to determine after the fact what kinds of programs are working best, rather than going in with preconceived notions. Learning how to deal with catty bitches ought to be treated as at least as important as learning the date when the Treaty of Ghent was signed. Out in the real world, there are still catty bitches, but nobody ever asks you about the Treaty of Ghent.