The lawyer defending the first person accused of felony cyberbullying in Missouri says his client intends to fight the charges on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional.
"The law criminalizes behavior that, but for the medium -- which in this case is the Internet -- would otherwise be legal," says attorney Mike Kielty. "That's in and of itself patently ridiculous."
He represents Elizabeth Thrasher, who was arrested this week for allegedly posting photos of a 17-year-old girl -- as well as her email address, cell phone number and place of employment -- on Craigslist's casual encounters section. The listing also included language "that could be construed as sexual in nature," according to the court papers. The teen is the daughter of the girlfriend of Thrasher's ex-husband.
Thrasher was charged with violating a one-year-old Missouri law that makes it a felony for an adult to recklessly cause emotional distress to someone under the age of 18 by posting material online. That law was enacted after a victim of an Internet hoax, 13-year-old Megan Meier, killed herself.
Kielty argues that the same conduct that Thrasher allegedly engaged in wouldn't be considered criminal if it occurred offline. He characterizes the Craigslist ad as equivalent to writing "For a good time, call Jane Doe" on a bathroom wall -- activity that, he says, would not be a crime in Missouri.
Not everyone agrees. "He's absolutely dead wrong," says Parry Aftab, a national expert on Internet crime and safety. She says that criminal laws are not unconstitutional simply because they target online activity. For instance, a federal law on the books since 1999 makes it a felony to use the Internet to provoke the sexual harassment or exploitation of children 16 and under. While the victim in this case was 17, the law itself is constitutional even though it's specific to the Web, Aftab says.
Aftab also says that Thrasher might have violated other federal statutes here. "All I can say is, what was she thinking?" Aftab says. "I am very angry that anyone would do something like this to a minor."
But Kielty says that the incident has been blown out of proportion. He says that the alleged conduct was "inappropriate and a bad idea," but adds that all of the facts have not come out yet. "This didn't happen in a vacuum. There's a lot that's led up to it," he says.
The next hearing in Thrasher's case is scheduled for Aug. 31.