Without providing necessary education, outlawing “sexting” might not prevent it from happening in the first place.
It’s 2005, and I am a sophomore in high school: My brick of a cell phone lights up and starts obnoxiously beeping to Mariah Carey’s “You’ll Always be my Baby.” It must be my boyfriend, so I check my cell to see a pixilated heart with kissy lips floating around it. I think to myself, “Wow. This is sexy.”
According to today’s teens, my sexy text was lacking one thing: the sex appeal. The act of “sexting,” or sending nude pictures via text message, is a popular trend among teenagers. So popular that nearly half the states have considered legislation that would seriously punish the kiddies willing to shed their clothes for a racy cell phone picture.
State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, has proposed a bill that would make sexting a misdemeanor, which would make Pennsylvania the 21st state to consider this type of legislation.
Rep. Grove is helping minors because the current law holds sexting under child pornography, which is a felony and could mean being registered as a sex offender. Still, the bill could ultimately violate the rights of minors. Teenagers need to learn through education, not prosecution.
Andy Hoover, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, explained that under the proposed bill, if two minors consensually exchange text messages that contain nude photographs, it will be illegal.
“Say a girl sends her boyfriend a nude photo – the photo is only meant for the one party, and that act should be protected under the First Amendment as freedom of expression,” Hoover said.
My question is, how would an authoritative figure uncover these photographs without invading a minor’s privacy by searching his or her mobile device? In Wyoming County, Pa., students at Tunkhannock junior and senior high schools had their cell phones confiscated, which is allowed because cell phones can be viewed as a disruption to education. However, it should not be permissible to search through the content of a student’s cell phone as an assistant principal did in this instance.
“The assistant principal found nude photographs on a female student’s phone and turned it over to the district attorney,” Hoover said. “Now the student could be dealing with legal charges because of a private picture that the student didn’t mean for anyone else to see.”
When asked how authorities would obtain a sext if it was only between two minors, Richard Long, the executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association, said these were “uncharted waters.”
But is it possible to chart waters that are illegal? Authorities need “reasonable suspicion” to search a mobile device. It sounds like authorities would then be profiling students who might dress a little provocatively as likely sexters.
“The big picture that we are trying to paint is that sexting is already a crime because it falls under child pornography on the books,” Long said. “We understand that the minors who are sexting are not doing so as acts of child pornography so we are making the punishment fit the crime.”
I agree that if a minor is absolutely going to be punished for sexting, then the charges should not be as serious as a felony. But in certain cases, a person could be victimized and then slapped with a legal charge when the First Amendment should have protected him or her in the first place.
“Let’s say two people exchange photos meant only for each other, but then the other person forwards the photo to several people,” Hoover explained. “The DA would go back to the source and charge that person. Not only would that person be victimized by having their photo viewed by many people, but then she would be charged with a crime even though she did not forward the photo to multiple people.”
In situations like this, the person who is responsible for sharing the photo should be the one to face punishment. While the ACLU says that if the sexting is conceptually between two parties, it should be protected, Long states that it is still a crime.
“Once a photo is taken, no one knows what could happen and who could see it,” Long said. “It could be posted to the Internet for millions to see. There are a lot of what-ifs that could be avoided.”
That’s the thing with what-ifs – they’re what-ifs. Minors shouldn’t be punished for the worst if they haven’t done the worst. The law seems to simply place a cloud of fear over minors – first with the possibility of being charged with child pornography, and if Grove’s bill passes, there would still be the fear of a misdemeanor.
Instead of projecting fear, there should be more education on the topic and on sexuality in general. The Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association sponsors a program, called Let’s Talk About Sexting, to “warn high school students and their families about the dangers and consequences of sexting.” This program is a step toward educating minors, but how many teenagers would be willing to attend a program like this? Pennsylvania state law does not require sex education, but maybe it should if minors are going to face the law for something the law never required them to learn.
Samantha Krotzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.