Missouri Supreme Court strikes down part of Cyber-bullying law
Posted by James Skyles
In general I am opposed to setting aside separate laws for “cyber-bullying”. Bullying is bullying, and while it is easier to do it anonymously online, it should be treated the same as if it were through any other medium, such as random phone calls, and anonymous letters. The problem is, they are usually extremely broad and vague, such as the Tennessee version I have blogged about in the past.
This is exactly what happened here. The law was partially struck down because portions were “void for vagueness”, and therefor violated due process clause the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution. The Missouri cyber-bullying law came about from a bizarre case five years ago when a teenager committed suicide after being humiliated by a classmate’s mother who was posing as a teenage boy she developed a relationship with.
This case dealt with criminal charges against defendant Danny Vaughn, who was charged with criminal burglary and harassment in 2010. According to the Washington Post, Vaughn entered into the residence of his former wife, and repeatedly made unwanted and harassing phone calls to her, which triggered the cyber-bullying portion of the statute.
Under the applicable portion of the statute(Section 565.090.1, RSMo Supp. 2008) harassment occurs when an individual.
(5) Knowingly makes repeated unwanted communication to another person; or
(6) Without good cause engages in any other act with the purpose to frighten, intimidate, or cause emotional distress to another person, cause such person to be frightened, intimidated, or emotionally distressed, and such person’s response to the act is one of a person of average sensibilities considering the age of such person.
The court ruled that both these portions are unconstitutional because they can be used to criminalize constitutionally protected free speech, specifically with the terms, “frighten”, and “intimidate”. They also opined that “Knowingly makes repeated unwanted communications” was both to broad, and could also be used to criminalize protected speech, especially political speech.
In my opinion though, even in its reduced form, the law could still have been used to prosecute that mother who harassed the teenage girl into committing suicide, so its original purpose remains intact. I do agree with the court that the constitutionally vague portions of the law must be addressed in the legislature.