A prosecutor in Pennsylvania is threatening to charge a 14-year-old high-schooler with child pornography in a "sexting" case that has gotten national attention.
Speaking on CBS' "The Early Show" on Friday (March 27), Wyoming County district attorney George Skumanick Jr. said his office is considering filing charges against two girls who, on a hot night last summer, decided to strip down to their underwear, at which point a third friend took a picture of the two in their white bras. The image ended up on classmates' cell phones, and now Skumanick is thinking about charging Marissa Miller and Grace Kelly with offenses ranging from "sexual abuse of children in Pennsylvania, criminal [use] of a communications facility, or open lewdness," as well as other possible charges.
The teens have claimed the images were just harmless fun, and on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, asking a federal judge to block Skumanick from filing any charges. The ACLU argued that the girls didn't consent to having the picture distributed and the picture does not fit the definition of pornography and is protected First Amendment speech.
"There was absolutely nothing wrong with that photograph," Marissa's mother, MaryJo Miller, told The Associated Press. "I certainly don't want pedophiles looking at my daughter in her bra, but I don't think that was the intention to begin with. This is absolutely wrong on his part. It's abuse of his authority."
Skumanick's office has also offered the teens the option of limiting the penalties to probation if they agree to attend a five-week after-school sexual-harassment program and probation.
Miller, Kelly and their parents were joined in the ACLU lawsuit by a 17-year-old classmate from their school who was photographed topless last year in a separate incident and who is also facing felony charges unless she takes the class. That girl is being referred to as "Nancy Doe" in the case, which Skumanick — who claims he is taking the actions to help the children understand what sexting could do to their futures — said he would fight. Under Pennsylvania's child-pornography law, it's a felony to possess or distribute photos of a minor engaged in sexual activity, "lewd exhibition of their genitals or nudity meant to titillate."
But CBS legal analyst Lisa Bloom said the idea that young girls taking pictures of themselves at a slumber party might be prosecuted for child pornography, face prison time and register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives is over the top.
"Teens have this brand-new technology. They're using it in foolish ways," Bloom said. "It's bad judgment. I think parents and teachers should punish them. But to subject them to these harsh criminal penalties I think is very scary, and we as citizens all have to reconsider what we're doing with our laws, catching so many children up in these kinds of dragnets."
The photos first came to light in October, when officials at Tunkhannock Area High School confiscated five cell phones and found that boys had been trading photos of scantily clad, seminude or nude teenage girls, whose ages ranged from 11 to 17. After meeting with 20 students and their parents last month, Skumanick said 17 agreed to take the class on sexual harassment, sexual violence and gender roles.
Prosecutors in several states — including Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin — are attempting to stop the growing fad of teens sending suggestive photos of themselves to one another by charging those students with crimes. In New Jersey, a 14-year-old girl was accused of child pornography after posting 30 nude pictures of herself on MySpace for her boyfriend, and in Falmouth, Massachusetts, police have charged six teens ages 12 to 14 with possessing and distributing material of a child in a sexual act after they were accused of sending nude pictures of a 13-year-old girl on their cell phones.
In Ohio, a state lawmaker said Thursday that he's planning to introduce a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for minors to send naked images over their phones, according to the Mansfield News Journal. That move was spurred, in part, by the suicide in June of 18-year-old Jessica Logan, who was harassed, taunted and shunned at her school after a nude photo she texted to her boyfriend was widely distributed to hundreds of students at seven Cincinnati high schools last year.
What do you think of these proposed harsh penalties for sexting? Let us know in the comments section.