Monica Yant Kinney: No need to go overboard on teens' sexting

A few weeks ago, my daughter made her first trip to the principal's office. Our future prosecutor, all of 6, had brazenly confronted a classmate with allegations that were neither true nor any of her business.

Her father and I lectured at length to show our dismay at the self-made scandal.

The kid cried herself hoarse after disappointing adults she respects. She replayed the saga, realized her folly, and apologized to the boy. That seemed plenty harsh enough. If you can't learn from a mistake in first grade, when can you?

Elected officials around the nation are grappling with a similar dilemma: teenagers bright enough to take racy photos of themselves on smartphones, but so dim they think the images won't go viral.

Legislators mostly want to criminalize the high-tech youthful transgression known as sexting. Which is strange, since voters made it abundantly clear in the fall that they want government to scale back and stop meddling in their lives.

I'll grant that community service and education programs make more sense than arresting adolescents and sentencing them to sex-offender registries. But we're dealing with a generation that's been handed phones in middle school and raised on oversharing.

Who keeps calling the cops when these supposedly private pictures inadvertently make the rounds? Since kids are famously image-conscious, isn't public humiliation punishment enough?


Crime of the times?

Under current law in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, a cheerleader e-mailing intimate images to a football player subjects both of them to felony child-pornography charges.

Legislators in Harrisburg remain hung up on whether naked pictures sent from iPhone to Droid should be labeled a misdemeanor or a summary offense, but York County Rep. Seth Grove has no doubt that sexting is a crime of the times.

"They are juveniles who need to understand this is child pornography they're creating," Grove told me last week as he sought cosponsors to reintroduce his sexting bill. "Kids are not taking these pictures as an art form. It's for sexual arousal. It's for flirting."

Civil rights attorneys who've defended minors in sexting cases maintain just the opposite: Breasts and/or bottoms by themselves do not constitute child pornography. Neither do full-frontal self-portraits shot and sent behind closed doors while unsuspecting parents sleep.

To be illegal, the transmitted image must include the "lascivious" exposure of genitalia. U.S. Supreme Court justices know it when they see it, but from the sexting cases pursued thus far, principals and prosecutors haven't a clue.


Sent messages

Grove is a Republican, but he doesn't buy the idea that politicians should stay away from sexting.

"By legalizing it, you're saying it's OK to do it," he argued. "Is that the message we want to send? Or is it, 'You shouldn't do it, but we're going to ensure you're not held accountable for it the rest of your life, so we'll put you through some grief so you know it's a bad thing'?"

In New Jersey, Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt (D., Camden) has won bipartisan support for a far more rational approach to this dumb use of smartphones. Rather than strengthen criminal penalties, her legislation - which could get a floor vote Feb. 17 - would steer most kids caught sexting into a diversionary educational program pummeling them with common sense.

"We need to treat teenagers differently," said Lampitt, who works for the University of Pennsylvania and has a son and a daughter in their 20s. "And our courts are already burdened enough."

Lampitt's measure is refreshing, but still subjects knuckleheaded high schoolers to government scrutiny and a talking-to by the Attorney General's Office. Presuming the photographic act doesn't involve violence or bullying, why not let parents decide if and how to proceed?


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