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Vermont Considering Laws to Prevent Prosecution for “Sexting”

April 13, 2009 01:59 PM
by Anne Szustek
Vermont's state legislature is considering a bill that would exclude teenagers engaging in "sexting" from being tried under child pornography laws. Across the country, teens are being charged for allegedly sending suggestive photos of minors via cell phone.

Legislation Would Exempt "Sexting" from Child Porn Laws

This week, the Vermont state House Judiciary Committee plans to begin discussing a bill that would exclude some cases of "sexting"—sending sexually explicit photographs via text messaging—from being prosecuted under child pornography laws. The state Senate backed a proposal along these lines earlier this month. The Burlington Free Press reports "the exemption covers only the consensual exchange of graphic images between two people 13 to 18 years old; other conduct would remain a crime."

Vermont state Sen. Richard Sears, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, told The Burlington Free Press, "This isn't an issues of whether it's a good thing or a bad thing—I think it's wrong—but the question is, do we want kids to be prosecuted, called "sex offenders, etc., etc., for consensual conduct? No."

At least one teenager in Vermont, a former student at South Burlington High School, is facing charges in connection with sexting. 

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Background: Sexting and teens

Sexting is more common than many might think, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. According to the survey, about 20 percent of teens admitted to participating in sexting.

But even if teens are sending the photos in shocking numbers, Patrick Artur, a Philadelphia defense attorney who has handled many child pornography cases, believes charging the teens for photos they took themselves runs counter to current child pornography laws. “It’s clearly overkill,” he said to MSNBC.

There are many pending cases around the United States in which sexting has given way to prosecution for alleged sex offenses.

Florida resident Phillip Alpert, upset after an argument with his high school sweetheart, sent a nude cell phone picture of her to his friends and family. Alpert had just turned 18; his girlfriend was 16. Alpert told CNN, “It was a stupid thing I did because I was upset and tired and it was the middle of the night and I was an immature kid.”

Orlando, Fla. police arrested Alpert and charged him with sending child pornography. He pleaded no contest and was later convicted of the felony offense. As per Florida law, he must now register as a sex offender, “a label he will carry until the age of 43,” CNN reports, and his name appears on an Internet registry of sex offenders in Florida.

As a result, he has been expelled from college, can’t find a job and cannot travel outside of his home county without checking in with his probation officer.
In another instance of “sexters” being prosecuted in connection for alleged sex crimes, three female high school students were facing charges of manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography, after taking and sending nude or semi-nude photos of themselves to male students, while the three male students who received the pictures are facing charges of possession.

The photos were discovered in October when school officials seized one of the boys’ cell phones when he was using it Greensburg Salem High School in Greensburg, Pa., in violation of school rules. The cases were resolved in juvenile court in March. The six students were sentenced to curfews and community service.

Some other jurisdictions are taking decidedly less traditional approaches to the technologically advanced issue of sexting. The Glen Rock, N.J. public school district has instituted a 24-hour deadline for all students to remove from their cell phones and computers widely circulated nude pictures of a female teenage student. Should students not comply, they face possible criminal charges.

When 20 students at Pennsylvania’s Tunkhannock High School were caught apparently sexting, Wyoming County, Penn. District Attorney George Skumanick, Jr. gave them the option of probation, classes and counseling or facing criminal charges for sexual abuse of a minor. On March 30, a Pennsylvania judge enforced a temporary restraining order blocking the prosecution of three girls pictured in the circulating photographs. With the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, their parents requested the order on the grounds that Skumanick’s actions were “retaliatory” and that the paper they would have had to write was tantamount to “forced expression” in violation of their First Amendment rights, writes PC Magazine. The photos in question showed one of the teens in a swimsuit. Others showed the girls in opaque training bras or wearing a towel.

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