State House votes for 'sexting' bill

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HARRISBURG -- State House members don't approve of the questionable practice of "sexting," in which teen-agers use computers and emails to send nude or seminude pictures of themselves to friends. But legislators also don't think that such youths should be charged with a felony and risk going to jail, which is what could happen now.

By a vote of 178 to 20, legislators on Monday approved a measure sponsored by Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, which applies to the electronic transmission of nude photos by a minor -- defined as someone age 13 to 17. An adult (age 18 or older) can still be charged with a child-pornography felony for transmitting nude photos electronically.

"Teens need to get the message that as soon as they hit the 'send' button and transmit these inappropriate images, the genie is out of the bottle," he said. "These photos can be distributed to an entire high school with the click of a button. Sexting can have long-term detrimental effects," including causing some teens to withdraw from school to avoid embarrassment or to even commit suicide.

In at least one case, a district attorney in northeastern Pennsylvania tried to charge a minor with a felony for sexting, under laws meant to combat child porn. Being convicted of a felony "can result in very serious consequences" for a teen, including a sentence to jail or a detention center, Mr. Grove said.

Currently, there is no specific law to curtail sexting by minors, because it's a relatively new phenomenon. The bill doesn't list a specific penalty for younger teens who "sext," but it does make it a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Fines, community service and a "consent degree" for the youth not to do it again could be levied as punishment, but not incarceration. A youth could also eventually have his or her "sexting" record expunged. Mr. Grove said he was working with police to try to find a balance and devise "punishment that fits the crime."

House Bill 815 still needs Senate approval. It does not deter prosecution of either a minor or an adult for a more serious behavior -- emailing photos that "depict lewd or graphic sexual behavior," acts that are described in detail in the bill.

Still, Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, said the bill went too far, especially by banning sexting between "consenting" teens. He said sexting "is nothing more than normal adolescent behavior with new technology. It's harmless sexual exploration" as long as both teens agree. He said the state shouldn't "legislate its view of moral conduct. This is something for parents to deal with."

He said he could recall from his youth when "two guys on the football team would moon each other -- drop their pants and show their buttocks." Now, he said, if such activity was transmitted electronically, the players would face misdemeanor charges, which he said was too harsh.

But Mr. Grove said law enforcement officials and district attorneys had been asking the Legislature for guidance on what to do about unwanted sexting, so this new law is needed.

Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks, agreed, saying: "Prosecutors have said their hands are tied now when they deal with this issue. This is a good bill."


Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-623-1238.


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