Teenagers should not face child pornography charges for snapping nude photos of themselves on their smartphones. The Legislature should update the state’s laws to avoid criminalizing ill-advised teen mistakes.
Teenagers should not be labeled as sex offenders simply for texting intimate pictures of themselves to someone else.
But that is exactly what can happen right now in Washington state. The state’s child pornography laws make no distinction between teens who send pictures of their own bodies and adults who take explicit images of children to exploit them.
A smart proposal in the Legislature would change this backward reality. Senate Bill 6566 would ensure that teens who send explicit images of themselves online or by text message — sexting — are not treated the same as adults who distribute child pornography.
This change in law is long overdue. The state Supreme Court acknowledged concerns with the existing statute in a September decision involving a 17-year-old who texted a woman a photo of his penis. In a split ruling, the court upheld the teen’s child-pornography charge — and the corresponding requirement that he register as a sex offender — even though the picture he distributed was of himself.
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“ … Our duty is to interpret the law as written,” the court’s majority wrote, adding it is up to the Legislature to decide whether to change the law. Three dissenting justices argued the ruling “would produce absurd results,” punishing children for sexting more harshly than adults who do the same thing.
State Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, and Rep. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, are leading the charge for a legislative remedy, saying the law hasn’t kept up with evolving technology.
County prosecutors agree.
“This is a bill that is about 10 years overdue,” said Todd Dowell, a Kitsap County senior deputy prosecutor. Dowell testified in favor of the bill on behalf of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
“ … When these child-porn laws were created years ago, we did not have these electronic devices,” he said.
Senate Bill 6566 would decriminalize minors taking naked selfies, and no longer consider it child pornography for them to exchange those photos with other teens 13 and older.
Teenagers who distribute photos or videos of other teenagers engaged in sex acts could still be punished. But their crime would be considered a misdemeanor instead of a felony. The state’s laws banning “revenge porn” would still apply to teens who send out such images maliciously.
These provisions strike an important balance, preserving consequences for teens who share sexual photos of their peers, while making allowances for 21st-century teens who make mistakes.
Adolescents should not be labeled sex offenders and felons for snapping naked selfies. The Legislature should pass this measure to ensure teenagers’ fleeting indiscretions with smartphones don’t haunt them for the rest of their lives.