Fox and some other news sites are reporting that a Missouri woman has been charged with “cyberbullying” in violation of the statute that was adopted after Megan Meier’s suicide.
According to the Fox story, 40-year-old Elizabeth Thrasher posted a 17-year-old girl’s picture, email address and cell phone number on the “Casual Encounters” of Craigslist “in a posting that suggested the girl was seeking a sexual encounter.” According to Fox, the girl contacted police after she received “lewd messages and photographs from men she didn’t know”.
Why, you ask, did Thrasher do this? According to Fox (again), the girl is the daughter of Thrasher’s ex-husband’s girlfriend and Thrasher and the girlfriend had been arguing. The Fox story says this resulted in some “back-and-forth bickering on MySpace among all three”, which apparently resulted in Thrasher’s doing the Craigslist posting. If convicted, Thrasher could face up to 4 years in prison or up to a year in county jail and a $5,000 fine, again according to Fox.
The Smoking Gun has the probable cause statement that accompanied the criminal complaint (also on the Smoking Gun) filed against Thrasher. The complaint charges Thrasher with the
class D Felony of harassment . . . in that on or about May 1, 2009, in the County of St. Charles, State of Missouri, the defendant with the purpose to cause emotional distress to D.P., a person who is 17 years of age or younger, and who did thereby cause D.P. emotional distress by anonymously creating personal information of D.P. on Craigslist, and the defendant was 21 years of age or older.
Complaint, State v. Thrasher, OCA # 09-2394 (St. Charles County Circuit Court 2009).
I don’t know why the charge in this case is being referred to – by Fox and other sites – as “cyberbullying.” As the quote above indicates, Thrasher is really charged with felony harassment in violation of § 565.090 of the Missouri Statutes.
Section 565.090 was amended after the Megan Meier case to expand the scope of its prohibitions. The statute was expanded to encompass electronic communications and to add the felony offense with which Ms. Thrasher has been charged. Under the revised statute knowingly communicating with “another person who is . . . seventeen years of age or young” and “without good cause” recklessly frightening, intimidating or causing emotional distress to that person is a class A misdemeanor unless the person doing the communicating is 21 or older . . . as is Ms. Thrasher.
I only have two comments on this case: One is that it aggravates me when conduct like this is referred to as “cyberbullying.” As I noted in an earlier post, if we’re going to use that term I think we need to define it with some precision and, I’d suggest, limits its use to conduct by a juvenile that’s directed at another juvenile. As I noted in that post, I don’t see why we need to use cyberbullying for adult-on-adult or adult-on-almost adult conduct when such conduct can be referred to, and prosecuted as, harassment or stalking.
My other comment is that if I were Thrasher’s defense attorney I’d consider filing a motion to dismiss the charges. As I noted above, the statute Thrasher is charged with predicated liability for harassment on the perpetrator’s (Thrasher’s) “communicating with the victim. I’d argue that Thrasher did not “communicate with” the 17 year old; Thrasher “communicated with” the pool of people who frequent the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist. I’d therefore argue that an essential element of the crime is missing, and the complaint should be dismissed.