Editorial: Juvenile behavior

The Pa. House has concocted a complex set of unnecessary rules.
The Pa. House has concocted a complex set of unnecessary rules.
Posted: August 04, 2010

A well-intentioned effort by Pennsylvania lawmakers to classify most instances of teens "sexting" as a ticketing or misdemeanor offense takes this controversy in the wrong direction - by criminalizing a misguided practice that has become an unfortunate part of adolescent behavior in the digital era.

When a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled in March that an upstate district attorney could not prosecute a teen under the state child pornography laws, that should have been the end of any criminal-justice crackdown on teens sharing racy digital images of themselves.

As an immature practice - one that's already showing signs of fading from fashion - the circulation of such photos by phone message and online is best dealt with as a disciplinary matter. And not by prosecutors, either, but by parents or, if it's discovered in a classroom setting, by school officials using detention and the like.

For experienced prosecutors who receive information about sexting, it shouldn't be that difficult to make a speedy determination as to whether the images represent an instance of teens doing something merely ill-advised - or whether the intention is to create and share images that are pornographic.

But House legislation approved 163-36 in June and sent to the Senate would concoct a complex set of rules that would only force law enforcement officials to wade deeper into an area of teen behavior better left to parents and school counselors.

While it hasn't been tested in court, the House measure probably crosses a constitutional line by barring free expression in the form of simple nudity - images whose circulation the law would classify, absurdly, as "sexually explicit conduct."

Prime House sponsor Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) suggests that decriminalizing sexting would be the same as granting teens permission. But that presumes the lifting of parental and school-based disciplinary measures that, surely, will continue to be widely used in response to sexting.

In the Senate, the judiciary committee chairman, Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), says he intends to take up the issue, too. If the result looks anything like the House measure, though, it won't be any improvement.

The best antidote to sexting remains teaching teens more about the dangers of the digital world - emphasizing the risks for young girls, in particular - setting expected standards of conduct, and then showing understanding when some teens behave like, well, teens.

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