JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – The Missouri Supreme Court cited free-speech concerns Tuesday in striking down part of a state harassment law that was enacted after a teenager who was teased over the Internet committed suicide.
The 2008 law was intended to update harassment crimes by covering communication from computers, text messages and other electronic devices. It removed a requirement that messages be written or spoken over the telephone and defined harassment, in part, as covering anyone who “knowingly makes repeated unwanted communication to another person.”
The Missouri Supreme Court concluded the new definition was unconstitutional because it was too broad, potentially restricting communication by political ads, teachers or even Salvation Army bell ringers.
The legislation was enacted after 13-year-old Megan Meier killed herself in October 2006. Megan, who had depression and attention deficit disorder, started communicating with “Josh” through MySpace pages. After talking for several weeks, the online messages she received turned mean, including one that stated he did not want to be her friend anymore.
Authorities said adult neighbor Lori Drew, her employee and her teenage daughter were involved in creating a fake MySpace profile of an attractive teenage boy _ “Josh” _ to see what Megan was saying about the daughter online. A jury in California found Drew guilty of three federal misdemeanors, but a judge overturned the verdicts and acquitted her. Federal prosecutors said in November 2009 that they would not appeal.
Megan’s mother, Tina Meier, said Tuesday that the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling is disappointing and weakens existing protections. She said harassment cases already are difficult to prosecute and that she hopes lawmakers will re-examine the issue.
“We have a right for freedom of speech, but we don’t have a right a right to repeatedly harass and threaten and stalk another person _ whether it’s face-to-face or through electronic communications,” she said.
Meier has spoken out against bullying and cyberbullying, and in December 2007 founded the Megan Meier Foundation to increase awareness about bullying. In 2008, she testified before a state legislative committee about the harassment legislation. Several months later, Meier wore a pin with a picture of her daughter and stood nearby as then-Gov. Matt Blunt held a signing ceremony for the harassment legislation.
At issue in the case before the state’s high court were 2010 criminal charges against Danny Vaughn for one count of burglary and one count of harassment. Prosecutors said he illegally entered the home of his former wife to harass her and made unwanted communications with her by repeatedly calling her after being told to stop.
A state trial judge dismissed the charges and concluded parts of the 2008 harassment law were vague and too broad.
The Supreme Court concurred that a portion was too broad but upheld another element that referenced the intent to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress. The case was transferred back to the trial court to deal with that portion.
In striking down part of the law, the Supreme Court said part of the harassment definition raised concerns over First Amendment free-speech rights and did not necessarily require unwanted communications actually to be harassing.
Judge William Ray Price Jr. wrote in the court’s opinion that the law could chill political and everyday communicaitons.
“Individuals picketing a private or public entity would have to cease once they were informed their protestations were unwanted,” Price wrote. “A teacher would be unable to call a second time on a student once the pupil asked to be left alone. Salvation Army bell-ringers collecting money for charity could be prosecuted for harassment if they ask a passerby for a donation after being told, `I’ve already given; please don’t ask again.’ “
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