CNN tells the sad story of a Massachusetts teenager who committed suicide as a result of verbal bullying at her school. In reaction, the prosecutor has charged the bullies with felonies.
Slander (including false name-calling-- the bullies called the victim a "slut" and a "whore," and made similar accusatory statements), of course, is not protected speech. But should it give rise to a felony conviction? I am doubtful, even where the effects are grave. I don't have an argument here, only a suspicion that no prosecution would ever have been brought for bullying absent the unpredictable bad effects, and that, had a case been brought in the absence of such effects, the community's sense of condemnation would have been radically different. I doubt that what is driving the sense of outrage and the calls for vengeance (see the comments on the CNN story) is a sense of the intrinsic blameworthiness of the bully's actions. The bullies do deserve blame; they were ruthless and mean. But I suspect that no one would have been calling for a prosecution if the victim had not committed suicide. If I'm right, that means that defendants aren't actually being punished for their conduct or its blameworthiness; they're being punished for the rare and unpredictable effects of their conduct. In a tort case, even, this wouldn't bother me. But it just instinctively seems like a mis-use of the criminal sanction to me.
A description of the facts of the case (in a filing) can be found here.