Some of you may have been following the curious story about Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide last year after receiving insulting messages on MySpace from “Josh,” who turned out to be an 18-year-old woman trying to glean information from Megan about a neighbor’s daughter. (Got all that?)
This “cautionary tale” of “cyberbullying in the suburbs” made the rounds toward the end of November and made good fodder for national news broadcasters, who were quick to warn parents to be vigilant and eager to put Megan’s grieving parents on the screen but not quite as interested in sorting out the legal and ethical questions that the case raised. Consider this exchange, excerpted from an interview with Ron and Tina Meier on the ABC morning news:
ABC: “I know it’s difficult to talk about all this. We hear about kids cyberbullying, bullying each other online, but this was a parent bullying your daughter, pretending to be someone else. Why would she do that?”
Tina Meier: “We don’t know. How do you get in the mind of somebody that–you just have no idea. We have no answer for that.
ABC: Do you think her daughter put her up to it and wanted to know more about your daughter?
Tina Meier: No.
Ron Meier: Everything that we found out so far–it was the sole idea of the mother.
ABC: Do you hold her responsible for the death of your daughter?
Tina Meier: Absolutely.
Ron: Yes, I believe they were the ones that took her to the edge of the cliff and gave her the nudge to go over.
The segment included no comment from a legal expert, who could have pointed to the high standard of culpability the Meiers’ prosecutor would have to meet and could have informed a broader discussion about harassment in cyberspace. In the absence of any real thinking on the subject, naturally, emotion won the day: in this case, Megan’s parents’ desire for vengeance went unchallenged.
As it turns out, though, they don’t have a case. According to this CNN report, the Meiers’ attorney will not be pressing charges. “There is no way that anybody could know that talking to someone or saying that you’re mean to your friends on the Internet would create a substantial risk,” prosecuting attorney Jack Banas said. “It certainly created a potential risk and, unfortunately for the Meiers, that potential became reality. But under the law we just couldn’t show that.”
I certainly don’t defend the neighbor or her 18-year-old accomplice; my point is not to rush to their side. What they did was reprehensible and callous and mean. I feel bad for the Meiers; I feel like they are justified in seeking retribution for what happened to Megan. But that’s just it: when it comes to meting out punishment, feelings should be subservient to the law. You don’t often get that perspective from the nightly news or from victims’ rights partisans or–and here’s my point–from the antibullying campaigns, which typically call for an aggressive approach to punishing schoolyard thugs. What you get instead is an emotional appeal measured not by legal precedent or smart policy but by sympathy votes.
It’s a no-brainer to condemn bullies. But we should use our brains when considering how to hold them accountable for what they do.