October 3, 2008

Cyberbullying Suit Filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court

By Angela Riley

Another case of cyberbullying has arisen out of St. Louis.

A West County father alleges in a petition filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court that someone used a Facebook account to harass his daughter who struggles with mental illness to the point that she was psychiatrically admitted to an in-patient facility. The father wants the social networking site to release the person's account information so he or she could be held liable.

The incident is similar to the cyberbullying of 13-year old Megan Meier in St. Charles. Meier, who had a history of depression, committed suicide after receiving upsetting messages on MySpace from a person she thought was a boy and a friend on the site. The boy turned out to be Lori Drew, a neighbor of Meier's family and the mother of a girl Meier once considered a friend. Drew was trying to find out what Meier was saying about her daughter.

The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles accused Lori Drew of using protected computers to inflict emotional distress on the girl. She faces four counts, each carrying up to a five-year sentence if convicted. Drew was arraigned June 16 in Los Angeles, where MySpace is based, pleading not guilty. The trial scheduled for Oct. 7 was postponed in order for U.S. District Court Judge George Wu to consider the defense's motion to dismiss the case. No new trial date has been set.

According to the St. Louis County Circuit Court petition, the father's 16-year-old daughter, SMB, had become friends with a Jane Doe who went by "Jennifer Litzinger" on Facebook. The father alleges that after Doe learned of his daughter's psychiatric condition due partially to her obsessive relationship with a boy "JB," Doe set out to cause his daughter emotional distress by creating a purported rival for JB's affections.

Doe used photos of a well-endowed model as Jennifer Litzinger's profile picture so that SMB, "an ordinary 16-year old, would feel inferior to her purported rival with respect to her physical attractiveness," the petition said.

Doe sent messages through Jennifer Litzinger, telling SMB that "she looked like a troll," had a "worthless life," that she knew that Jennifer Litzinger looked better than her, that JB had told Jennifer Litzinger that she was "sexy" and Jennifer Litzinger and JB "almost had sex."

These statements caused SMB's mental condition to rapidly deteriorate, the petition said. She was taken to St. John's Hospital by ambulance and stayed there four days to stabilize. This was followed by in-patient treatment at the Menninger Resident Clinic in Houston, a psychiatric facility.

Doe is the only defendant named in the case. The father is only asking for the court to order Facebook to release any information that could disclose the real identity of Jennifer Litzinger, for over $25,000 in damages for SMB's medical bills and punitive damages.

"These are agencies take the privacy of their users very seriously," said the father's attorney Joe Jacobson, of Green, Jacobson & Butsch. "You file the lawsuit first, then call them up and try to work out a way to approach the court order. You want to be as unobtrusive as possible."

The new Missouri Internet Harassment Law could not be used in this instance because it took effect Aug. 28. The incident involving SMB happened in July.

In response to Meier's suicide, a special gubernatorial task force was assembled to study Internet harassment. Missouri prosecutors decided not to file charges against Drew because there was no applicable statutory law under which to do so.

The law updates state laws against harassment to keep pace with technology by removing the requirement that the communication be written or over the telephone. The law covers harassment from computers, text messages and other electronic devices.

However, under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is being used to charge Drew, Doe could face charges. The act was typically used to target computer hackers, but in this instance, it was used connection with a Web site's terms of service prohibiting misrepresentation by users setting up new accounts. This is the first time that the act interpreted in this manner.

Judge Wu already ruled the act being used against Drew is not unconstitutionally vague and does not improperly delegate prosecutorial power to the owner of a Web site. But the judge still has to determine whether Drew's violations of the MySpace terms of service are tantamount to the "unauthorized access" required by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Originally published by Angela Riley.

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