A 14-year-old girl in New Jersey has earned the dubious honor of possibly becoming the youngest person ever to be charged with the distribution of child pornography.
The girl, from Passaic County, was charged with possession and distribution of child pornography after police say she posted nearly 30 explicitly nude photographs of herself on MySpace.
Prosecutors nationwide have been cracking down on the process of sending revealing photographs of teenagers through cell phones and e-mail. Known as “sexting,” the act can have some pretty severe consequences.
If the photographs are of a minor, owners can be charged with possession and distribution of child pornography, a felony. If convicted, they would face years in jail and would have to register as a sex offender.
A case in Pennsylvania is challenging this trend. Officials at Tunkhannock Area High School in Wyoming County confiscated five cell phones and found that boys had been trading photos of scantily clad, semi-nude or nude teenage girls. Prosecutors in the town met with about 20 students and offered a deal — no charges if the teens would take a class on sexual harassment, sexual violence and gender roles. But two students, a pair of thirteen-year-old girls, are fighting back.
The two were photographed in the summer of 2007 wearing opaque white bras, talking on the phone and flashing a peace sign. Last Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal judge to block the county district attorney from filing charges, saying that the teens didn’t consent to having the picture distributed, and that in any event the image is not pornographic.
Under Pennsylvania’s child pornography law, it’s a felony to possess or disseminate photos of a minor engaged in sexual activity, “lewd exhibition of the genitals” or nudity that is meant to titillate.
While it’s true that very few people under the age of 18 attend the university, students here could still find themselves in trouble with this law.
If that cute young high school student you were chatting up last week at a party sends you a naked photograph of herself, and she happens to be 17 years, 11 months, and 29 days old, you’ve just received child pornography. If you happen to have a naked photograph of yourself stored on your phone that you took before you turned eighteen, you’re in possession of child pornography. If you send someone else that photograph, both you and the person you sent the photo too are liable.
Child pornography laws exist for a reason. But there’s a huge moral difference between a pedophile taking a picture of an 8-year-old against her will and posting it on the Internet and a 17-year-old taking a picture of her body and sending it to her boyfriend.
The law is intended to prevent the exploitation of children — i.e., it’s intended to prevent other people from taking nude photographs of children for their own sexual or monetary gain. Sexting doesn’t fall into this category.
By the time you’re 17, barring any medical abnormalities, your body no longer looks like a child’s. Moreover, if a teenager freely chooses to take a picture of him or herself, I fail to see how that could be considered exploitation by another person.
In a nationwide poll taken this year, 20 percent of teens admitted to engaging in the practice of sexting. Attempting to prosecute all teens caught with racy photographs could soon get a little ridiculous. Shouldn’t our judicial system have more important things to worry about?
Prosecuting those who take the pictures of themselves defies logic. By the logic of that law, teenage masturbation should garner a charge of child molestation. These teenagers need help, not legal trouble.
Let me be clear: I am in no way supporting the practice of sexting. Taking racy pictures and sending them to people is a seriously bad idea. But it’s simply a bad idea, not a criminal one. Slapping criminal charges on a dumb teenage mistake is an extreme overreaction and a waste of the judicial system’s time and resources.