Slashdot regular Bennett Haselton summarizes his essay this way: "Debate over the Lori Drew verdict has focused overwhelmingly on whether the ruling was technically correct, but there is another serious issue: the perverse incentives that this ruling creates for victims of online harassment." Read on for his essay.
Since a jury convicted Lori Drew of three misdemeanors for harassing Megan Meier on MySpace and causing her to commit suicide, most of the debate has focused on the question of whether proper legal procedure was followed in an attempt to punish someone for their obviously evil actions, when it wasn't clear that an actual crime had been committed. Emily Bazelon has argued that the rule of law is too important to convict someone for a crime for what was essentially a violation of the MySpace Terms of Service. Anne Mitchell has argued that the slippery slope is nowhere near as dangerous as the backlash is making it sound, because the doctrine of prosecuting people for violating a site's TOS is almost certainly only going to be used against people who commit horrific acts in the process, as Lori Drew did.
I'm more inclined toward the rule of law argument, but hang on — both sides seem to be assuming that it was a desirable outcome to punish Lori Drew publicly and severely. Hell yes she deserved it, but there is more at stake here. What about the consequences for kids who are current victims of harassment and who hear about the case and the verdict?
When anti-cyber-bullying laws were proposed in response to the original news of Megan Meier's suicide, I argued that the laws would be a terrible idea, especially if the criminal provisions of the law were conditional on the bullying victim harming themselves — because then you've created told victims of harassment: You can have your tormentors publicly vilified and even arrested, but only if you make it look like you tried to injure or kill yourself (and at which you might succeed in the process, intentionally or not).
What would be true of a cyber-bulling law is also true for the pseudo-caselaw created by the verdict. Surely there are other Megan Meiers out there who should not be led to believe that they can ruin their harasser's lives by committing suicide.
Now you might argue that by my reasoning, existing harassment laws which are contingent on the victim showing signs of emotional distress, could lead to the same problem — victims either consciously faking distress, or trying to fake distress so convincingly that they actually harm themselves, or subconsciously absorbing the fact that they can only get justice if they actually show harm. I had actually assumed that existing harassment laws governed only the conduct of the harasser, and did not depend on how the victim felt, but I was wrong — here in Washington State for example, RCW 10.14 states that harassing conduct is conduct that
"shall be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress,
and shall actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner." [emphasis added]
Reading that literally means that no matter how bad the harassment is, you still have to feel distressed in order to have them prosecuted, and the more distressed you "act," the more likely you are to succeed! But hang on — in order for that law to create incentives for victims of harassment to fake distress in order to have their personal enemies prosecuted, they would have to actually know that the law says that. I doubt that most people walking around Washington know the exact wording of the harassment law. More likely, they already realize that if they were to ever try and have someone prosecuted for harassment who didn't actually deserve it, a little tears and shaking would probably influence the judge, whether or not their feelings had any technical relevance under the law. And even if they were to exaggerate the effects of the harassment, all they would have to do would be to claim that they threw up or lost sleep from anxiety — they wouldn't have to show evidence of trying to harm or kill themselves.
On the other hand, everybody has heard about the Lori Drew and Megan Meier case, and it seems likely that the fact that Megan killed herself did contribute to the conviction. (At one point Judge George H. Wu had said that he would probably exclude evidence from the trial that Megan Meier had committed suicide as a result of the harassment, but later changed his mind and did allow it to be mentioned, saying "It's impossible to get a jury that doesn't know.") If Megan Meier had merely lost sleep, or suffered from panic attacks, or cut herself as a result of the harassment she endured from Lori Drew, would Drew have been convicted? Or even arrested?
These perverse incentives — "rewarding" Megan Meier for her suicide by vicariously exacting her revenge on Lori Drew — have been present ever since the wall-to-wall coverage of the case first started. Many news outlets have a policy of not publishing the names of suicide victims, not only to protect the privacy of grieving families but to avoid "rewarding" suicides by giving them the attention they may have wanted. The Associated Press Statement of News Values and Principles does not list any policy against printing the names of suicides. Maybe they should. (They do have a policy against printing the names of sexual assault victims, for example.) But it's a slippery journalistic slope to go down once you start deciding not to publish certain elements of a story, even for what seem to be compelling reasons. For example, take the policy of not publishing the names of alleged rape victims. If the rationale is that the AP doesn't want to cause unfair embarrassment to the alleged victims in case their story is true, why wouldn't the AP also avoid publishing the name of the defendant, to avoid causing them vastly greater unfair embarrassment in case the victim's story is false? So any decision to leave someone's name out of a story can lead to sticky "but-then-what-about" scenarios.
Perhaps the story should not have been covered at all, or anywhere near as much as it was. (I realize I may be contributing to the problem here, but my penance is that I'm calling for less coverage in the future, and I would never be writing about this if the mainstream media hadn't covered it so extensively.) What about all the other people who committed suicide during the same year, also as a result of vicious harassment, but with the only difference being that their suicides did not involve the Internet? Don't they deserve the same justice, and don't their tormentors deserve the same vilification?
Defenders of Internet civil liberties have for years been disgusted with the fact that crimes involving the Internet — from simple identity theft to rape and murder — have always gotten disproportionately more attention than the same or similar crimes committed without the aid of a computer. In the Megan Meier case, the effect of the coverage is even worse: Leading potential suicides to believe that they can have the sympathy they always wanted, and revenge on those they hate, if they kill themselves.