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Guilty verdict in MySpace suicide case could chill Internet speech

The jury convicted a Missouri mother on three counts, but not conspiracy.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 26, 2008

Los Angeles

A high-profile Internet legal case that just concluded here will have a chilling effect on users of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook if the verdict holds up on appeal, legal experts say.

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A Los Angeles jury on Wednesday convicted Lori Drew – the defendant in the so-called "MySpace Suicide Case" – of three counts of illegally accessing computers. But the six-man, six-woman panel could not reach a unanimous verdict on the single count of conspiracy.

The case drew national attention because Ms. Drew had created a phony MySpace profile of a teenage boy who criticized a 13-year-old girl who subsequently hung herself.

"What happened to Megan Meier was a tragedy, not a crime," says Andrew Grossman, senior legal policy analyst in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "This case should never have been brought. The strongest evidence for the prosecution had nothing or little to do with the charges. This verdict is a loss for civil liberties and leaves all Internet users at risk of prosecution under federal law. It is a prime example of overcriminalization."

Other legal experts agree.

"The statute was never intended to cover this kind of conduct," says Michael Scott, professor of law at Southwestern School of Law, Los Angeles. "Lori Drew did not do the key acts that the prosecution alleged, but rather a third party did, so it seems strange that the person who pulled the trigger is not prosecuted but the one standing next to her is."

"What Drew really did was harassment and the fact that she used the Internet was just kind of an accident," says Sheldon Rampton, research director for the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wis. "A lot of people do things on the Internet that are not nice, but that doesn't mean they should all be criminalized."

Attention and outrage about the incident first surfaced in late 2007, nearly a year after the suicide in O'Fallon, Mo. On MySpace, Drew created a 16-year-old boy named "Josh Evans" who subsequently began to send messages to 13-year-old Megan Meier, who had recently ended her friendship with Drew's daughter, Sarah. Pretending to have just moved to Dardenne Prairie, a small town just a few miles south of O'Fallon, "Josh" befriended the 13-year-old and feigned romantic interest. Prosecutors allege that Drew wanted to learn about Megan and what had happened to the friendship with Sarah.