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Lawmakers try to pull the plug on teen 'sexting'
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The survey is an eye opener, in more ways than one.

It shows that one of five American teens have electronically transmitted nude or seminude images of themselves and nearly four of 10 have sent sexually suggestive e-mail or text messages.

Now, Florida lawmakers and others around the country are attempting to address the issue with an approach that may seem counterintuitive: partly decriminalizing behavior known as "sexting" by minors and diminishing current penalties that could brand libidinous teens as child predators or pornographers.

"We have a 20th century law that was never meant to apply to a 21st century situation like this," Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, said Tuesday. "We're saying, 'Let the punishment fit the crime.' This is a stupid activity and it will come back to haunt young people for years to come, but it is not child pornography."

Bills filed in the Florida Senate by Aronberg (SB 2560) and in the House (HB 1335) by Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, take a somewhat parental approach. The measures would specifically address sexting by minors and apply an escalating series of punishments that the sponsors say will make enforcement more likely.

The legislation defines sexting as using a computer, cell phone or other electronic device to transmit nude photos or videos of oneself or possessing such an image sent by someone else.

Under current Florida law, a minor - anyone under 18 - who sends such an image can be charged with creating, possessing or transmitting child pornography and labeled as a sexual offender. The penalty for that third-degree felony is five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Aronberg said it doesn't make sense to hit teens with penalties that severe for transmitting pictures of themselves.

"What makes this so unusual is that the supposed 'pornographer' is also the victim," said Aronberg, who is running in the Democratic primary for Florida attorney general.

Many others agree and no vocal opposition to the bills has emerged.

"More and more people are coming to the conclusion that branding a 16-year-old as a pedophile for sending or receiving a picture is not the right way to go," said Jessica Sheets, a spokeswoman for The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

A "Sex and Tech" survey commissioned by her organization in September 2008 revealed the scope of sexting by American teens and young adults.

It found that 20 percent of teens sent or posted nude or seminude pictures or videos of themselves, including 22 percent of teen girls and 11 percent of young teen girls (13 to 16 years old). Thirty-nine percent of all teens said they sent or received sexually suggestive text messages.

Many teens were using this material as a high-tech calling card - sending it to someone they did not know well or wanted to date, according to the survey.

"People started to react pretty strongly because it was such a shock that these things were going on," Sheets said. "And once parents, teachers, communities, etc., began to focus on this issue, it followed logically that lawmakers would begin taking a closer look."

For the most part, legislators and prosecutors in Florida and around the country found virtually no laws that focused on sexting by minors or distinguished that behavior from more serious acts committed by adults.

This year, at least 15 state legislatures are considering measures to deal with sexting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The proposals attempt to educate teens about the dangers of sexting, deter teens from engaging in the behavior and impose appropriate penalties if the teens break the law.

In Florida, the bills now moving through the Legislature would take a 'please-learn-your-lesson' approach.

A first violation would be non-criminal, punishable by eight hours of community service and a $25 fine. A second would be a misdemeanor punishable by 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. A third would be a first-degree misdemeanor with up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. A fourth becomes a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Aronberg said the stepped punishment makes enforcement far more likely than it is today.

"Right now, it's all or nothing and most law enforcement doesn't want to get involved with it," he said.

"This law encourages law enforcement to pay attention to it," Aronberg added. "This is a way to stop it."


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