Area news crews converged at the Lewis Katz Building last evening to cover the panel discussion “Words, Camera, Legal Action: Teen Sexting and its Consequences,” hosted by the William Penn Chapter of the international law fraternity Phi Alpha Delta (PAD).
Terry Kaufman ’12, who organized the event on behalf of PAD, said the topic, "provided a great opportunity to discuss a current event with legal aspects that are relevant not only to law students, but also the community." He also said that because case law is very limited, "a great deal of uncertainty exists in the legislative process, consequently inviting extensive debate. As a handful of states, like Pennsylvania, proactively address teen sexting, other states will monitor the successes, as well as the failures, and mimic the most effective approach."
Panelists State Representative Seth Grove (R-York) and Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico ’88 are working on a bill that makes sexting by teens a misdemeanor rather than a felony as it is today. Panelists Andrew Hoover PSU ’08, legislative director of the PA American Civil Liberties Union, and Riya Shah, staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, believe that it is wrong to criminalize behavior that has been around for years just because of the communication method is now via cell phone.
Both sides agree on one remedy. “It’s more important to educate than to prosecute,” said Marsico who is also president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. For the past several years district attorneys have been working to make certain that everyone from parents to teens are aware of the law.
"Protected expression" cited by ACLU
Hoover pointed to a number of constitutional issues that arise from the bill. "No charges have been upheld in Pennsylvania," he said. Throughout the discussion, Hoover several times used the term "rogue DAs" to describe overzealous prosecutors, referring to a particular case in Pennsylvania where a prosecutor threatened to bring child pornography charges in a case involving "two girls in their underwear." While Marsico took exception to the term rogue DAs, he did agree that the particular case Hoover cited was an inappropriate application of the law.
Grove explained that if his bill passes, a teen convicted of sexting would be significantly better off than one charged today. "The purpose of the law is to both hold (teens) accountable and protect them at the same time," he said.
Marsico shared several cases where images sent via cell phone by teens ended up in the hands of child
predators and pornographers. Shah countered that this law treats the victim—someone who may have been coerced by friends to send a photo—and a "malicious disseminator" as the same.
"Students who plan to work as district attorneys or public defenders after graduation probably got the most from the discussion, because those students will deal with teen sexting cases as soon as a few months from now. New legislation will directly affect the tools these new attorneys have at their disposal," Kaufman said. He added that the audience was able to see "firsthand the type of debate that accompanies contentious legislation." The event was covered by local NBC and CBS affiliates as well as a State House of Representatives film crew.