Everyone would agree that spreading child pornography or exploiting minors is wrong, morally and legally. It is likely that most of us would vehemently and aggressively seek to punish those who participate in such activities. But what if the victim was actually the perpetrator? That one probably has you scratching your head. Consider the case of an Iowa teenager who used the mobile app Snapchat to send semi-nude photos of herself to a friend. The high school freshman posed in front of a mirror, snapped a few photos of herself and forwarded them to a friend. Little did she realize that she was breaking an Iowa law.
Iowa law stipulates that anyone who spreads obscene materials to minors has committed a crime known as sexual exploitation. Although in this case, and others like it in Iowa, the minor shared the photos, it is still considered to be either a Class C or Class D felony offense. The teenaged girl and her family assert that this is perhaps bad judgment but certainly not criminal. They have filed a lawsuit to prevent the Marion County Attorney from charging the girl with sexual exploitation.
The Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online cites research that 4-25 percent of minors 12-17 have admitted sending or sharing nude photos. A 2013 study of 378 prosecutors found that 62 percent had worked juvenile sexting cases; 36 percent had filled charges; and 21 percent had filed felony charges. The most serious charges included production of child pornography. 20 states have passed sexting laws as of July 2015.
The implications of this case for the teen are far reaching. County Attorney Ed Bull has stated that if found guilty, the girl may have to register as a sex offender. The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa has weighed in on First Amendment protection since the images shared by the teenager are not nude photos. The girl is wearing boy shorts and a sports bra in one picture, and topless in the other. Her hair is covering her breasts in the second photo. Lawyers for the family argue that her First Amendment rights will be violated if the prosecutor moves forward with criminal charges.
Teenagers are receiving cell phones in increasing numbers. If the research holds true, 4-25 percent of the nation’s minors could become registered sex offenders before they are old enough to vote. While most states’ attorneys agrees that sexual exploitation laws were not intentionally created to apply to youth, the legal implications for the teen in this case remain to be seen.