So-Called ‘Sexting’ Laws Too Cloudy

“Sexting” — the act of sending naked pictures via text message — has stirred controversy in many communities and in the legal system at large as teenagers have been charged with pedophilia and forced to register as sex offenders for transmitting and receiving nude photos of underage individuals.

The most prominent case is of Philip Albert, an 18-year-old Floridian who, after a particularly nasty break-up with his ex-girlfriend, distributed the nudie photos she texted him to more than 70 people. One of the recipients was his ex-girlfriend’s grandparents. When police busted Albert, he was sentenced to five years of probation and was obligated to register as a sex offender — a label he’ll carry for the next 25 years. The girl was never charged.

Similar cases are sprouting wherever you turn. A 15-year-old girl in Pennsylvania has been charged with child pornography after e-mailing naked photos of herself to a 27-year-old man on MySpace — the 27-year-old, meanwhile, was charged only with “unlawful sexual activity.”

In Virginia, a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old were charged with possession of child pornography and electronic solicitation after investigators discovered sexted messages on at least seven cell phones. One of them contained an image of an elementary school student.

These examples are particularly vile. However, what of the six teenagers in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, who swapped explicit photos of themselves among themselves? Though technically viewed as illegal behavior, the incident could also be construed as a naïve exchange between young people oblivious to the far-reaching consequences.

The list of cases goes on and on. According to USA Today, police have investigated sexting charges for least two dozen teens in at least six states. The practice has reached epidemic proportions. Many of the guilty aren’t even aware they are committing a crime — in Ohio, after several teens were busted for sexting, the perps were required to survey their peers to determine whether or not sexting was acknowledged as a crime. Of the 225 surveyed, only 31 knew.

The main problem with these sexting charges is determining who is guilty and who is not. In some cases, those who snapped the photographs have been charged; in others, it’s those who received the images and inadvertently stored them on their mobile devices or e-mail accounts. On the state level, there are far too many variations of the law to whittle down who is responsible for what. For instance, if a father discovered the images his daughter sent, shouldn’t he be charged with viewing child pornography and be punished? The consequences for a sexter shift and, like in the case of the porn-collecting 27-year-old MySpace man, they are occasionally irrationally biased against the youngest involver.

Late last year it was reported that at least 20 percent of teenagers have sexted or e-mailed naked self-photos. Forty percent said they’ve viewed them. These acts are clearly perpetrated by young adults without a basic understanding of child pornography laws, and some states, like Utah, are taking this into account as sexting rises in popularity. Lawmakers there have agreed to lessen the sexting penalty for minors to a misdemeanor from a felony.

Child pornography laws were established to protect children. What does it say about the standing validity of a law when its principle is being repurposed to attack those it originally meant to defend?

Until a national consensus can be built around sexting and the prosecution of the “guilty,” I believe it should be taken into account that these may just be kids being kids, behaving irresponsibility, fueled by newfound sexual desire, and, as Philip Albert put it, being “stupid.”

Via NetworkWorld