Friday, March 27, 2009

Sexting: The New Moral Panic

Students Sue Prosecutor in Cellphone Photos Case:

When a high school cheerleader in northeastern Pennsylvania learned that she might face criminal charges after investigators reported finding a nude photo of her on someone else’s cellphone, she was more confused than frightened at being caught up in a case of “sexting”: the increasingly popular phenomenon of nude or seminude photos sent over wireless phones.

The picture that investigators from the office of District Attorney George P. Skumanick of Wyoming County had was taken two years earlier at a slumber party. It showed Marissa and a friend from the waist up. Both were wearing bras.

Mr. Skumanick said he considered the photo “provocative” enough to tell Marissa and the friend, Grace Kelly, that if they did not attend a 10-hour class dealing with pornography and sexual violence, he was considering filing a charge of sexual abuse of a minor against both girls. If convicted, they could serve time in prison and would probably have to register as sex offenders.
Read that part carefully: the prosecutor would charge them with "sexual abuse of a minor" for victimizing themselves. And if convicted, they would have to register as sex offenders who sexually abused...themselves.

It was the same deal that 17 other students — 13 girls and 4 boys — accepted by the end of February. All of them either been caught with a cellphone containing pictures of nude or seminude students, or were identified in one or more such photos.

But three students, Marissa, Grace and a third girl who appeared in another photo, along with their mothers, felt the deal was unfair and illegal. On Wednesday, they filed a lawsuit in federal court in Scranton, Pa., against Mr. Skumanick.

They asked the court to stop the district attorney from filing charges against them, contending that his threat to do so was “retaliation” for the families asserting their First and Fourth Amendment rights to oppose his deal.
Said the judge when reading the complaint:
“It seems like the children seemed to be the victims and the perpetrators here,” the judge, James M. Munley, told a lawyer for the district attorney, George P. Skumanick of Wyoming County. “How does that make sense?”

The lawyer, A. James Hailstone, said state law “doesn’t distinguish between who took the picture and who was in it.”
Incredible. Using that logic, you could also rob yourself, burglarize your own home, and steal your own car since none of those crimes specifically states "of another."

As we discuss in juvenile delinquency, "Sexting" is yet another example of "moral panic" regarding adolescents, their behavior, and political capital.

Almost unheard of a year or two ago, sexting cases are popping up with more frequency across the country.

A survey of 1,280 teenagers and young adults released in December by the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com found that 20 percent of teenagers and 33 percent of young adults ages 20 to 26 said they had sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves.

“Is this today’s example of the sky is falling?” said Bill Albert, a spokesman for [National Campaign to Prevent Teenage and Unplanned Pregnancy], a nonprofit group in Washington. “No, and I don’t think we need to overreact.”

“We’re talking about na├»ve kids getting caught up in these draconian penalties,” [attorney Gerald] Grimaud said. “That seems pretty extreme to me.”
Ditto. But when there are votes to be gained and elections to be won, all bets are off.

Next Up: The girls, once convicted, sue themselves for defamation and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

UPDATE: check out this WSJ article from 4/8. "Which is Epidemic: Sexting or Us Worrying About It?"

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