By now, Tina Meier’s story is well-known: In 2006, the Missouri native’s 13-year-old daughter Megan hanged herself after being bullied on MySpace by a neighbor—the mother of one of the teen’s schoolmates and former friends—who created a fake profile to torment Megan. At the time, there was no specific law dealing with that kind of situation, so the mother ultimately escaped prosecution.
Gasps and tears from parents and educators filled the auditorium of Neshaminy High School in Bucks County last Wednesday as Meier recounted the events that led to her daughter’s suicide. The emotional, hour-long presentation marked the launch of CyberSafe Philly, a series of 10 Verizon-sponsored summits—of which Meier is the keynote speaker—happening at area schools over the next two months.
“Do I think kids need to understand there are consequences, that there are devastating things that happen out of the things they do and say through technology? Absolutely,” says Meier, who played a key role in getting a Missouri cyberbullying law passed in 2007.
Since losing her daughter, Meier has become one of the nation’s most potent crusaders against cyberbullying and sexting—the transmission of nude or semi-nude photos to someone else via cell phone, computer or other electronic device. Sexting has become a chief component of cyberbullying because such photos often turn into instruments of blackmail or harassment. Her extended visit to Philadelphia comes at a time when Pennsylvania is poised to join about 20 states that have already criminalized the act of minors engaging in sexting and/or cyberbullying.
Because there are currently no sexting or cyberbullying laws on the books in Pennsylvania, district attorneys have wide latitude when it comes to prosecuting minors. Everything from simple harassment to possession or distribution of child pornography has been in play.
Two Pennsylvania lawmakers—Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) and Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Bucks/Montgomery)—have each introduced legislation in the past two months that would provide clearer guidelines for prosecutors by establishing sexting (and in the case of Greenleaf’s bill, nonsexual cyberbullying as well) by minors as a second-degree misdemeanor.
There are similarities between Grove’s House Bill 815 and Greenleaf’s Senate Bill 850. Both lawmakers anticipate that minors convicted on a second-degree misdemeanor would likely not face jail time, but instead be placed in a diversion program and hit with community service, fines and forfeiture of the electronic device used to do the sexting. Both bills also provide for swift expungment of criminal sexting records following completion of the sentence. But one profound difference jumps out. Take, for example, this common scenario: A girl takes a nude photo of herself with her camera phone and sexts it to her boyfriend. The relationship falls apart, and the boy retaliates by forwarding the photo all over school, humiliating the girl. Under Greenleaf’s bill, the boy could be charged with the misdemeanor, but not the girl. Under Grove’s bill, however, both the boy and the girl could be charged.
“It’s an issue I have been struggling with,” says Grove, who introduced a similar bill last year that passed in the House but failed to get through the Senate. “My heart does go out to the victim, [but] by her sending that [photo] to him, she now broke the law and she’s also the victim. It’s a unique, hard situation, but if she sent it to him, she’s responsible for her own actions.”
Grove believes his bill gets to the root of the problem: The creation of the photo in the first place. “I don’t accept [sexting] as normal child behavior. At some point you have to draw a line … and say, ‘We’re not going to accept this.’ This is about child pornography. It’s about us as a society deciding what is child pornography.” Grove argues that sexts frequently end up in the hands of adult sexual predators. “We’re inadvertently creating child pornography to fuel an illegal industry.”
That approach doesn’t sit well with Riya Shah, staff attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, who believes Grove’s bill doubly victimizes the minor who creates the sext. “We hear the horrific stories about the kids who hurt themselves because they’ve sent a photograph to somebody and it’s gone public and they’re humiliated or being bullied by it, so by prosecuting that person who sent the photograph, you’re not accomplishing anything,” she says, adding that she supports criminalizing the boy’s actions in the aforementioned scenario.
Dr. Rollyn Ornstein, a Hershey-based pediatrician who has advised the JLC on the sexting issue, disputes Grove’s assertion that consensual sexting is aberrant behavior. “I’m not advocating [sexting], but it falls under the rubric of normal, healthy teenage sexual development. Now we just have all this technology to do it with. Kids need to be educated about how far it can go and how it can be harmful.”
The JLC is throwing its weight behind Greenleaf’s proposed legislation, which Shah says is “a much more thoughtful and understanding response to the issue.”
“It clearly provides an offense that is measured in nature and addresses not all sexting, but sexting that’s not consensual, sexting that’s intended to harm or hurt another person,” Greenleaf says of his bill, which is scheduled for Senate consideration on April 12. “I’m very reluctant to create new crimes, particularly for juveniles, but in this case we’re trying to protect them [with] an appropriate way to deal with this matter.”
Grove and Greenleaf believe that some form of sexting/cyberbullying legislation will end up on Gov. Corbett’s desk by the end of the year. Which is what Tina Meier’s hoping for. “Parents need to take the lead in educating and warning kids about these things, but states need to do something, too,” she says. “Otherwise it’s like ‘If no one’s really gonna do anything to us, then what’s to stop us?’ We have to have laws in place.”