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  • Recent Cyberbullying Tragedy Raises The Question: Who Should Be Held Accountable?

    Nineteen year old, Alyssa Funke committed suicide on April 16, 2014 after being berated by cyber bullies over her choice to partake in a pornographic film. This is the latest tragedy to raise legal questions about how to combat cyberbullying. Although investigations continue in Washington County, Minnesota, police say the brutal harassment Alyssa Funke endured prior to taking her life will most likely not result in any criminal charges.

    Alyssa Funke was a straight-A freshman at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Her decision to appear in a pornographic film was discovered by students at her former high school after the film was posted on the internet in March 2014. Soon after the film became available online, Alyssa was taunted with abusive messages on her social media accounts. Local news sources reported that many students at her former high school would gather at cafeteria tables and watch the film. In the weeks prior to her suicide, Alyssa’s Twitter and Facebook accounts were bombarded with harassing comments posted by cyber bullies. Alyssa told her mother about the bullying and that she was aware students were watching the pornographic film in her former high school’s cafeteria. Only a few weeks after the video went viral, Alyssa purchased a 12-gauge shotgun, drove to a nearby lake, and took her life. Her family declined to be interviewed but her mother insists that cyberbullying played a significant role in Alyssa’s decision to end her life.

    These tragic stories of students being victims of cyberbullying have been sweeping our nation for years. Cyberbullying has been defined as the willful and repeated use of cell phones, computers, and other electronic communication devices to harass and threaten others. Schools have instituted policies and sanctions to combat this issue, and legislation is slowly being introduced in an attempt to remedy this heartbreaking epidemic.  However, many states have yet to institute a cyberbullying standard into their harassment and bullying laws. Although 49 of 50 states have laws against bullying only 20 states have included cyberbullying in the legislative language.[1]

    Minnesota, home of Alyssa Funke’s high school, has bullying laws and cyberbullying laws will become effective starting on July 1, 2014. This delay in legislation may be indicative as to why police are saying the social media posts taunting Alyssa Funke do not warrant criminal action.  Hopefully this standard will change in the upcoming months.

    Despite this tragedy, the internet company that posted the video, CastingCouch-X, has yet to take down Alyssa Funke’s video and has refused to reply to news reporters wondering why the video is still available on their website. The company has been linked to another young woman Miriam Weeks (alias “Belle Knox”), who, like Alyssa Funke, is a college student who chose to appear in one of the company’s internet films. Miriam Weeks, a student at Duke University recently came forward about her work in the adult entertainment industry after being harassed by acquaintances at her college. Knox took her notoriety and parlayed it into interviews and television appearances. After learning of Alyssa Funke’s suicide, Miriam posted a letter on her website empathizing with how depressed Alyssa must have felt from her cyber bullies.  Miriam admits to being bullied relentlessly by her peers and being threatened with death, rape, and heinous acts of violence from cyber bullies.

    Regardless of the substance of the bullying, local legislatures, schools, and social media cites continue to police this heinous form of harassment and continue to search for ways to penalize these criminal actors who hide behind the virtual veil of the internet.

    If you or your company has any questions or concerns regarding the cyber bullying, or any other e-discovery or education related questions, please e-mail Cynthia Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at 516-357-3753.

    A special thanks to Maria Ehlinger a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for help with this post.

    [1] Cyber bullying Research Center, Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D. and Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D. April 2014