The Senate has endorsed a proposal for a bill that would carve out a sexting exception in child pornography laws. Under this proposed law, people between the ages of 13 and 18 would not face child pornography charges for sending graphic images to one another, as long as the exchange was consensual. The carve-out requires that the images only be shared between two people, and not passed along to other parties.
The bill moves to the state House this week, and will be reviewed by the Judiciary Committee.
According to Senator Richard Sears (D-Bennington), in an interview with the Burlington Free Press, the proposed law
“would continue to punish sexting committed through force, coercion or other pressures, and prohibitions against voyeurism still would apply. Also, passing along images to others would remain a crime.”
This bill represents a step in the right direction. Teenagers sharing nude images of themselves, as a form of electronic flirting, should not face child pornography charges. These laws were designed to condemn the adult exploitation of minors, and not what defense attorney Leroy Yoder describes as
“essentially adolescent exploring but using technology.”
Yoder represents a Vermont 18-years-old, who currently faces sexual assault charges for allegedly convincing two teenage girls to send him explicit photos and videos. The teenager, if convicted, faces a possible life sentence.
Vermont’s law enforcement and legal community, by no means, celebrate the practice of sexting; but as Chittenden County, Vermont State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan explained,
“there’s no public interest in labeling them as sex offenders for engaging in a perverted, albeit new, form of courtship.”
The proposed law falls short, however, in that it does not protect teens who choose to share graphic images with more than one other person. For instance, the proposed law fails to protect individuals like the New Jersey high school student who posted nude photos of herself on her MySpace page and now faces a potential felony conviction. A similar fate awaits, apparently, the teen who decides to sext two friends, instead of the legally permitted one.
If the Vermont legislature is serious about not applying sex offender laws to teenagers sharing graphic pictures of themselves with their peers, then the proposed laws must address sexting beyond the one-to-one context.
The Free Press article acknowledges that sexting is best addressed through education. Attorneys Donovan and Yoder, along with other advocates, agree that education is the key, and that teenagers need to be aware of the potential ramifications associated with sexting, including having graphic images remain accessible to the general public for years.