Appeals court to decide if 'sexting' is child porn


Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

For the estimated 15 percent of teens who have a risque photo of themselves or a friend on a cell phone, here's some important news:

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia may soon decide whether they can be prosecuted under Pennsylvania child pornography laws merely for appearing in a "sexting" cell phone image.

The case involves photos of two 12 year-old-girls in training bras, and a 16-year-old wrapped in a towel with her breasts exposed as she leaves a shower. The latter photo was central at yesterday's hearing before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sexting is the widely talked about practice of using cell phones to send sexually provocative photos of yourself. The girls, from Wyoming County, northwest of Scranton, have not been accused of disseminating the photos, which have not been made public.

In 2008, then Wyoming County District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. threatened to prosecute the girls unless they attended what their lawyers called "re-education" classes and wrote an essay about why sexting is wrong.

Yesterday, before the three-judge panel, a lawyer for Mr. Skumanick said that was a legitimate effort to protect the teens from themselves and potential child predators, and compared it to other state laws -- like motor vehicle rules -- that regulate teen behavior.

That claim outraged ACLU lawyer Witold J. Walczak, who argued the prosecutor cannot accuse the girls of being pornographers under the guise of protecting them from pornographers.

"We've been mystified how anyone can look at these photos as pornography," he said. "These photos are not even close calls."

This is the first appeals court case concerning sexting, the reach of the state child pornography law and the First Amendment, said Scranton attorney Michael J. Donohue, who is representing Mr. Skumanick.

Mr. Donohue argued that prosecutors have the right to prevent behavior by a child that could endanger that child. Children "are putting themselves and other children at risk" of being exploited by sex offenders who may see the photographs, he said.

Mr. Skumanick lost his bid for re-election last year, and the new district attorney has argued for the right to bring charges, said Mr. Walczak.

The judges gave no indication as to when they would issue a decision. While "sexting" gets talked about a lot and is the subject of public service commercials on MTV warning teens against it, a study released last month by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project said only 4 percent of the teens reported they had sent out sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves.

Some 15 percent of cell-phone-owning teens ages 12 to 17 had received nude or nearly nude photos by phone, the report said.

After a number of sexting photos were found on student phones in 2008 at the Tunkhannock School District, disturbed teachers notified the district attorney.

Mr. Skumanick threatened to charge 16 teens with child pornography if they did not attend a recommended after-school education course and write the essay.

Most agreed, but the three girls and their parents went to a lower federal court, and that judge last year issued an injunction preventing Mr. Skumanick from either forcing them to take the class or charging them with child pornography. Requiring them to take what the ACLU called a "re-education" class violates the First Amendment, said the attorneys.

The appeals court will also have to decide whether it was appropriate for the lower court to intervene so early in a potential criminal case.

MaryJo Miller, 45, the mother of one of the two teens in the training bra photo, said outside the courtroom that the photo was not even taken with a cell phone.

Rather, a third girl took it with a digital camera, and years later it appeared on local teens' cell phones. Her daughter, now 16, made the decision to go to court, but "is getting a little tired of it dragging on," said Ms. Miller, who works for the school district as a teacher's assistant.

Asked her opinion of the photo, Ms. Miller said it merely looked like two children being "goof balls."

In the Pew report, researcher Amanda Lenhart wrote that teens use sexting "as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other."

Then she added the obvious: "and they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun."


First Published January 16, 2010 5:00 AM


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here