In the last week alone, two new reports emerged of prominent individuals using digital technology for unseemly purposes. A former aide to 2004 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards alleged that Edwards recorded sexual acts on DVD, and Greg Oden, the top overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, apologized for using a camera phone to send nude photos of himself that later surfaced on the Internet. As our society progresses into an era marked by unprecedented technological advances and increasing sexual openness, such stories will probably become even more common.
Adults have not set a good example when it comes to using video cameras and camera phones with a sense of propriety. We hope the Rhode Island Attorney General's office will keep this in mind as it develops legislation regarding underage teenagers who engage in the practice of "sexting" — sending sexually explicit images of oneself by text message or e-mail.
Under current Rhode Island law, teenage sexters technically fall under child pornography statutes that define manufacturing, distributing or possessing sexually explicit images of minors as a felony sex offense punishable by up to five years in prison. Anyone convicted is also required to register as a sex offender.
The Providence Journal reported Jan. 18 that the Attorney General's office was considering either establishing sexting as a new offense with its own penalties or maintaining the child pornography classification but reducing the potential punishments. We believe that criminal penalties for young and misguided sexters would be counterproductive. Child pornography laws are meant to protect youth from depraved, predatory adults. Those laws should be appropriately applied to avoid excessive punishments for teenagers still learning to manage their raging hormones and camera phones.
In an interview with the Board, Michael Healey, spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch '87, said the new law would likely treat cases of teen sexting as misdemeanors and not felonies or sex offenses. Healey also noted that the state has seen dozens of sexting cases in recent years, but tries to take a rehabilitative approach to the issue and tends to keep the cases in family court.
While we do not condone sexting, we do encourage the Attorney General's office to emphasize education over prosecution. Last April, legislators in Vermont proposed fixing the same legal misclassification — teenage sexters in Vermont were also treated as sex offenders — by decriminalizing sending or receiving a sext. Their proposed solution would only target for prosecution those who forwarded a sexually explicit message to others. This proposal still strikes us as the most reasonable way to treat teen experimentation and discourage wide dissemination of embarrassingly explicit images.
According to a 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, one in five teenagers has sent nude photos by phone or posted them online. Fortunately, prosecutors in Rhode Island do not pursue cases where the message contains only a nude photo and no sexual act. We hope the attorney general will continue to tread carefully in an area with potentially major repercussions for the lives of many young teens.
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