Florida Lawmakers Reconsider Harsh Penalties for Questionable Texts

On March 22, the state Legislature considered a bill that would establish less serious punishments for teenagers who take part in “sexting”—transmitting nude or racy images of themselves or others via text messaging or other means of electronic delivery.

The number of teens who ‘sext’ is rising. One study found that 20% of teens have sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves online.

Teens are using cell phones to text, post and e-mail racy images—which technically constitutes trafficking in child pornography.

While most teens say they do it for fun, getting caught means being kicked off teams and facing possible expulsion from school. Still others are going to jail.

In February, a 15-year-old Pennsylvania girl was charged with creating child porn after she sent images of herself on MySpace to a 27-year-old man.

And also last month, a Brevard County teenager was jailed after he forwarded a cell phone picture of his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend’s breasts to another teen. Police say the girlfriend allowed the photo to be taken while the two were dating.

In Florida, teens who are caught sexting must register as sex offenders under the state’s child pornography laws.

Phillip Alpert of Orlando was 18 when he sent naked pictures of his 16-year-old girlfriend to her friends and family after a nasty argument.

Alpert was charged with distributing child pornography and sentenced to four years probation. He was required to register as a sex offender—a label he will have to wear until he’s 43-years-old.

The sponsor of the Florida bill in the state House, Representative Joseph Abruzzo (D-Wellington) believes that a rethinking of the penalties is overdue.

“We shouldn’t be labeling our children as sexual predators for this type of behavior,” Abruzzo said. “We are lessening the penalties. When the child pornography laws were written, they obviously didn’t take this into consideration.”

“It is stupid behavior that young people will regret for years to come, but it shouldn’t be treated as child pornography. We’re trying to make the punishment fit the crime,” said the bill’s Senate sponsor, Senator Dave Aronberg (D-Greenacres).

If the bill passes on April 30th, both parties can be prosecuted if one teen sends a naked photo to another.

But first-time offenders would get a slap on the wrist: eight hours of community service and a $25 fine. A second offense would be a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The consequences of sexting can be unpredictable.

An Ohio teenager hanged herself last May after her ex-boyfriend forwarded nude photos of her to other girls in their high school class.

Even teen celebrities have been caught up in scandals involving sexting.

In September 2007, naked images of Disney’s High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens appeared on the Internet.

The pictures were allegedly self-portraits taken by Hudgens on her cell phone and sent to her boyfriend, co-star Zac Efron. Hudgens later apologized for the photos.

The National Council on State Legislatures reports that in 2009, Nebraska, Utah and Vermont changed their laws to lessen the penalties for teens who sext. This year, 13 states besides Florida are considering legislation that would treat teens who sext differently from adult sexual predators and pornographers.

Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney Russell Cormican has advice for teens considering sending racy images of themselves via text or email.

“Don’t do it. It’s stupid,” Cormican says.


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