SPRINGFIELD - Spurred by a Missouri case in which a teen killed herself after receiving hurtful messages over the Internet, an Illinois lawmaker has introduced legislation to crack down on the way adults talk to children online.
Illinois law already bars sexual predators and con artists from plying the Internet, but the latest measure, filed in Springfield last week, tries to expand those protections to include virtually any kind of potentially damaging Internet conversation with a minor. It would make it a felony for an adult to have any electronic contact that "demonstrates a knowing disregard for the health, safety and welfare" of the child.
The sponsor, state Rep. Bob Flider, D-Mount Zion, said the wording was prompted by the story of Megan Meier, the 13-year-old girl from Dardenne Prairie, Mo., who killed herself last year after receiving hurtful messages on MySpace, a social networking site, from a fictitious youth created by, among others, an adult neighbor.
Missouri authorities were unable to charge the neighbor with any crime because the communications didn't constitute harassment, stalking or other online activities specifically prohibited by law. Meier's parents went public with her story last month, drawing national media attention to the issue of emotional damage to children via the Internet.
"I thought it was a gap (in the law) that needed to be filled," said Flider. He filed his legislation after hearing about Meier's case in the press and discovering that Illinois law, like Missouri's, wouldn't have prohibited the online conversations that preceded the girl's suicide.
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"Unfortunately, there are adults who are adept at manipulating young people, and they're able to do so without any ramifications" in some situations, Flider said. His bill could be taken up when the Legislature returns to Springfield for regular session early next month.
This month, Dardenne Prairie passed a city ordinance making online harassment a misdemeanor. The city of St. Charles, Mo., has passed a similar ordinance.
Meanwhile, Missouri lawmakers are pursuing state legislation, with a task force expected to have a draft "cyberbullying" law by next month. The girl's mother, Tina Meier, has been lobbying the state and other venues to address the issue.
Megan hanged herself with a belt in a closet of her home on Oct. 16, 2006. Before her death, she had been exchanging messages on MySpace with someone she thought was a boy her age. After her death, her parents discovered that the boy didn't exist.
The Illinois legislation is HB4197.