Cyber Bullies: Free Speech

Policing the Internet?

Dr. Phil introduces Missouri Senator Scott Rupp, who proposed anti-cyber-bullying legislation on December 1, and Larry Walters, a First Amendment lawyer who believes in free speech on the Internet.

"You want to stop this, Senator, correct?" Dr. Phil asks, referring to online harassment.

"That is correct," Sen. Rupp replies.

"How do you stop this without trampling on First Amendment rights?"

"Well, we know that we are here, and we have a problem. We know where we want to go. We talked to people like Mr. Walters and those prosecutors and say, ‘What tools do you need if you are in a courtroom and something similar happens again? What tools do you need to get a conviction?' That's what we try to do, is to write a state law that encompasses this so if this happens again, those responsible can be held responsible," Sen. Rupp replies.

Larry joins the discussion. "Any law that restricts the content of speech implicates First Amendment concerns," he tells Dr. Phil. "I'm afraid that if you go too far, a situation like this can result in people saying, ‘There ought to be a law. We've got to do something about this,' and lawmakers " well-intentioned as they may be " write laws that tend to be over-broad on occasion and restrict otherwise legitimate speech. That's the concern."

"You have defended people who have been accused of putting offensive things on the Internet. Would you defend Lori Drew?" Dr. Phil probes.

Larry ponders the question. "As a private lawyer, I get to pick and choose my cases. I probably would not," he concedes, "but there are significant First Amendment issues raised by a law that would restrict free speech. There are ways to do this though, if you tie the activity to some sort of recognized crime, like assault or harassment. You just can't go too far as to restrict free speech and free expression on the Internet. The courts are going to throw it out."

Dr. Phil gestures toward Tina. "She isn't the least bit concerned about that, at this point. She's got somebody down the street whom she believes got involved in setting her daughter up and, basically, abusing her on the Internet, mentally and emotionally abusing her, and pushing her to the point that she couldn't cope with it anymore," he explains to Larry. "Shouldn't there be some way for those people to be held accountable?"

"I think there is. I think, frankly, a civil jury could hold those people accountable through some sort of civil claim for emotional distress or wrongful death," Larry replies.

Dr. Phil wants Tina to know there may still be legal options available in her fight for justice.  "Have you considered filing a lawsuit against these people?" he asks. "There are torts available for intentional infliction of emotional distress."

"Great, wonderful. You can do a civil suit, but then you're talking about the money situation. I could care less about a dime from them. I don't want their money," Tina says. "Bottom line is, criminally, something needs to be done."

Dr. Phil turns to Christine, Tina's best friend, who lives next door to Lori Drew. "Why do you think this happened? Did [Lori] ever talk to you about this before it became such an issue?" he asks.

"No. I had discussions with her about her daughter and Megan, and their little bickering back and forth, but never about the fake MySpace," she replies.

"But you think [Lori] was jealous that Megan had new friends and had moved on in her life, and cut off her relationship with her daughter?" he asks.

"I absolutely believe that," Christine responds. "I think that she was 100 percent jealous of Megan and went to go out and get her back."

"The parents of bullies are responsible for their child's bullying. They should monitor them; they should know if their child is being bullied, and they should know if their child is a bully," Dr. Phil explains. "But in this situation, the mother is allegedly involved in the bullying. Of course, she denies it, but you believe it to the core of your soul, right?"

"Oh, absolutely. Even if she's denying it now, she still stated that yes, she knew that it was a fake MySpace, she knew that it was a boy, she still knew her daughter was sending messages," Tina answers. "So she's still stating those facts, but she's pulling herself away from the rest of it."

Dr. Phil turns to Sen. Rupp. "What's the crux of your law that will deal with this?" he asks. "What's it, basically, going to say?"

"If you are going to harass someone, we need to make sure that our laws have kept up with technology. The government moves very slowly, and a lot of times, we are reactive when things happen. So we need to look at how new technology is fitting in with our current harassment, bullying and stalking laws, and things of that nature," he replies. "I think we can draft a law that says, ‘If this were to happen again, you are going to be held liable for stalking, harassment,' and we just need to find the right verbiage that stands up in a court of law."