In the lawsuit, the parents allege that Texas resident Kiley Ryan Bowers, now serving a nine-year prison term in California, "utilized the site to contact, seduce, meet, assault and then harass and torment" their 15-year-old daughter, Kristin Helms. Bowers pleaded guilty last year to two counts of interstate travel to have sex with a minor and transporting child pornography. Helms committed suicide while an investigation against him was pending.
The parents allege that MySpace should be held liable, and sued both Bowers and the site. "MySpace provides a ready means for sexual predators to easily gain direct access to young, innocent children that those predators would otherwise have no ability, or a substantially decreased ability, to locate or contact," the suit alleges.
But proving liability probably won't be easy. For one thing, Helms didn't actually meet Bowers on MySpace, but on another site. After meeting online, Bowers allegedly helped Helms create a MySpace page, which they used to send messages to each other.
Even in instances when predators have first contacted teens on MySpace, the social networking site isn't necessarily liable. MySpace last year won another lawsuit brought by the family of a teen who alleged she was sexually abused by someone she met on the site.
"If anyone had a duty to protect [the teen], it was her parents, not MySpace," wrote federal district court judge Sam Sparks in Texas.
Sparks dismissed the case, ruling that the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996 immunizes MySpace from liability based on material posted by users. He also held that Texas law doesn't oblige MySpace to protect users from crimes committed by other members.
The family quietly filed the case in state court in Texas earlier this month; last week Bowers moved to have it heard in federal court.
Regardless of the legal issues, this case could present a public relations problem for MySpace, which has been in the news recently because of another teen suicide--that of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who killed herself after she was harassed on the site.
MySpace recently agreed to implement measures aimed at protecting youngsters on the site, including banning known sex offenders from the site and setting defaults on the profiles of teens to "private," so they can't easily be accessed by strangers.
MySpace declined to comment for this article.