Cyberbullying, free speech and internet hate

Editor Ellen Futterman

Ellen Futterman, Editor

A lot of us grew up believing the old playground chant: “Sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us.” Well you know what? That’s a crock.

Words can hurt us. Words matter.

We hope our hate crimes series, which concludes in today’s paper (but will continue to be available online), explains how words can have a devastating effect on people. Just ask Tina Meier of St. Charles County, whose daughter Megan, committed suicide in 2006 a few weeks shy of her 14th birthday. Megan had been the target of intensely hateful postings on a MySpace page. Lori Drew, the mother of a former friend of Megan’s, admitted to creating a MySpace account in the name of a fictitious 16-year-old boy to humiliate Megan because she had allegedly spread rumors about Drew’s daughter. Drew was indicted and convicted on three misdemeanor charges but then a federal judge overturned the guilty verdicts and issued a directed acquittal on the three charges.

The matter drew national media attention and was the impetus for the creation of the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. The purpose of the bill is to amend the federal criminal code to impose criminal penalties on anyone “who transmits in interstate or foreign commerce a communication intended to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to another person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior.” The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security and has not been voted on as of yet. However, a cyber-bullying bill inspired by the Megan Meier case was passed in Missouri in 2008. That bill essentially make bullying through electronic communications illegal and potentially punishable.

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Some argue that any cyber-bullying legislation may be unconstitutional because it impinges on the First Amendment right to free speech. Tina Meier has heard that argument but feels it doesn’t apply when it comes to cyber-bullying, which she puts under the larger umbrella of hate crimes.

“I’m not saying kids spreading rumors on the Internet is a hate crime,” says Meier. “But when someone purposely and maliciously picks out a person or a group of people and creates a MySpace or Facebook page to target that person or group and then systematically and intentionally spreads vicious rumors or gossip, yes, I think that comes under a hate crime.”

In the wake of her daughter’s suicide, Tina Meier began a foundation in Megan’s name and travels the country telling Megan’s story and delivering presentations about cyber-bullying. When she speaks to middle school and high school students, she wants them to know that what happened to Megan can happen to others.

“Megan is not just a person you read about in the newspaper. Her story is for real,” said Meier. “One thing I want is for kids to think before they click. Think before you send a compromising picture or a negative, hateful comment. Walk away from the computer. Because once you hit send, you can’t get it back. And what you send can devastate the person on the other end.”

Education is perhaps the most powerful tool against cyber-bullying and bullying in general, agrees Karen Aroesty, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois. In an article in today’s installment of the hate crimes series, Aroesty outlines the ADL’s World of Difference Institute, which is a program designed to help people address their issues around bias and stereotypes. The institute’s curricula can be tailored to fit all age groups, from the littlest ones in pre-school to college students to employees in the workforce.

During numerous conversations with Aroesty over the course of reporting on hate crimes, the subject of the “Hit a Jew Day” incident at Parkway West Middle School in October 2008 came up. What began as an unofficial week of school spirit, with designated themes such as “Hug A Friend Day” and “High Five Day,” eventually escalated into “Hit a Jew Day,” whereby some youngsters were hit or slapped because they were Jewish.

Aroesty says that at the time, after assessing the situation by talking to all parties involved, the ADL didn’t feel the incident was anti-Semitic. By the same token, she adds, the ADL was and is sensitive to issues around any kind of bullying and the impact of the Internet, namely how it can fuel rumors and spread misinformation.

“Parkway already had a sensibility around (anti-bias) work because (the district) had been involved for years,” she said. “But (“Hit a Jew Day”) was a clear example of why students at 10 and 11 years old need to understand the impact of their words and that their behavior can have serious consequences. Those kids didn’t understand that at the time. Unfortunately, the incident negatively affected the whole district.”

Aroesty is quick to add that anti-bias education isn’t something that can take hold overnight. “You can’t do this kind of work by shoving it down anyone’s throat. People have to be willing to come to the discussion and many are resistant,” she said.

“The work we do hopefully get the conversations started. If you ask the right questions, hopefully behaviors and outlooks can change.”

So what do you think? Is cyber-bullying an infringement of free speech? Does it have the potential to be a hate crime? Go to our website at and register your comments please. Let’s keep the conversation going.