Cyberbullying: Criminal Or Merely Cruel?

Nicole Williams is one of the first people to be accused of harassment after a new Missouri anti-cyberbullying law was created after the death of Megan Meier. But should cyberbullying be prosecuted this way?

Authorities say that 21-year-old Williams sent a lewd text message to a 17-year-old girl whom she had heard was involved with her boyfriend. The specifics of the text message were not released, but some voicemails that Williams and others had left the girl threatened rape.

Williams' lawyer, Michael Kielty, claims that the new law which his client is accused under is poorly written and makes something illegal which wouldn't be under other circumstances:

Kielty said Missouri's revised harassment measures are bad law. "It's probably one of the worst written laws I've seen in my career," he said.

He said kids used to say things face to face or pass notes in school commenting on someone's looks or weight. The new law "criminalizes behavior that otherwise wouldn't be illegal except for the medium," he said.

"It's not criminal. It might be mean-spirited, but it's not criminal," he said.

One of the problems with Kielty's arguments is that Williams' behavior would in fact be considered criminal in another medium. The prosecutor of the Williams case notes that telephone harassment (which is essentially what Williams did) has been a crime for years in Missouri.

Kielty argues that because dumb kids say dumb things to each other about their looks or weight (he carefully avoids talking about threatening sexual violence) that Williams' harassment should not be seen as illegal.

Anyone who has been in high school in the past 15 years knows that harassment akin to the Meier's and William's cases are common. Kids do dumb things on the internet all the time, but now the dramatic influence of bullying and girl-on-girl crime are getting national attention. Are we—as some of the commenters on the Wired blog fear—turning into a coddling nanny state by expecting laws to save us from any uncomfortable moment? Or would ignoring these cases of bullying just make it okay for people to make threats of sexual and non-sexual violence just because they did it over a text message or a Myspace bulletin and not to the victim's face?

Prosecutors Charge Seven People Under New Cyberbullying Law [Wired]
Woman Accused Under New Cyberbullying Law [CBS News]