A 14-year-old Iowa girl, “Nancy Doe,” is facing sexual exploitation charges for taking two sexy pictures of a minor and texting them to a boy at school.
The minor in question is Doe, which means the Marion County prosecutor has essentially threatened to brand her a sex offender for taking and sending pictures of her own body.
Making matters significantly worse, the pictures in question can hardly be described as child pornography, Doe’s family argues in its lawsuit against Marion County Attorney Ed Bull. In one photo, she was wearing boy shorts and a sports bra. In the other, she had removed the bra but her hair was fully covering her breasts.
Doe’s own parents described the pictures as “less ‘racy’ than photographs they see in fashion magazines and on television every day.” They wonder if she could have been prosecuted for taking a picture of herself in her swimsuit—such a picture would have probably been even more revealing than the alleged ‘sexts.’
Doe’s not waiting to be prosecuted for something that shouldn’t even be a crime, and probably isn’t in this specific case. She has filed a lawsuit against the county attorney for threatening to violate her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
“It is clearly a violation of the First Amendment for a prosecutor to credibly threaten to bring criminal charges for protected speech and expression,” Rita Bettis, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, told The Des Moines Register. “While courts have held that child pornography is not protected under the First Amendment, in this case, there appears to be a real factual question about whether the image itself was child pornography.”
The trouble began last March, when two boys at Knoxville High School were caught using the school printers to print inappropriate photos of their classmates, both male and female, which had been obtained via texts and Snapchat. Some of the teens in the photos were nude, though emojis were covering their private parts, according to the lawsuit. Doe’s two photos were among them.
School officials notified the police, and the school counselor began reaching out to the parents. Doe’s family was horrified to learn that she had sent inappropriate photos to a boy who had then violated her privacy and shared them with his friends. They restricted Doe’s phone access as punishment.
Police officers asked to speak with Doe as part of their investigation into the Knoxville High sexting ring. Doe’s parents wisely declined permission for Doe to speak with them, though they agreed to come to the police station themselves. It was at this point, on April 6, that Doe’s parents were finally able to see the photos for themselves.
The Does were “perplexed,” according to the lawsuit, since neither of the pictures were pornographic. “Receiving assurances that these two photos were they only photographs of Nancy, the Does asked what the fuss was about…. Leaving the Police Department, the Does were confused why their daughter was being investigated by the police at all.”
A few weeks later, Juvenile Court informed them that Doe was accused of “Sexual Exploitation of a Minor.”
The court was apparently pursuing investigations against a number of kids involved in the swapping of sexy text messages at Knoxville High. The kids and all their parents were asked to meet with Bull, the County Attorney, on May 24. The Does did not attend—they had a prior conflict, were skeptical that the meeting could change their mind about their daughter’s innocence, and didn’t want to expose her to public shaming or ridicule.
According to the lawsuit, 30 kids and their parents attended the meeting. Bull told the kids that they could be charged with possessing child pornography and have to register as sex offenders. He also “slut shamed” the girls, chiding them for sending enticing photographs to the boys.
Bull gave the teens an option to avoid charges: they had to enroll in a pre-trial diversion program involving community service, classes on the dangers of sexting, no phone or laptop for set period of time, and an admission of guilt. If they did all these things, they would not be prosecuted.
This deal might make sense for kids who transmitted sexually suggestive pictures—although in a sane world, none would face criminal charges for mistakes that should be handled by parents and school officials. But the Does manifestly—and admirably, in my opinion—refuse to concede that their daughter violated the law.
All of the other kids accepted the diversion program. Doe’s family opted to sue Bull.
“Bull’s threat to prosecute Nancy criminally is completely without merit, and thus is made in bad faith as he has no, and can have no, reasonable expectation of obtaining a conviction of Nancy or an adjudication of Nancy as delinquent,” according to the lawsuit.
The county’s behavior is so egregiously awful, it’s hard to know where to begin. How can a person—andunderage person—be credibly accused of exploiting herself? If the photos Doe sent constitute exploitation, all photos of teenagers in bathing suits are exploitation. Could Doe be charged with exploitation for stealing a glance at her own body in the bathroom mirror when exiting the shower? (To say nothing of group showers at Knoxville High School itself.)
If any actual sexual exploitation took place, Doe is the victim of it, not the perpetrator. Her (not at all pornographic) pictures were shared without her consent. I don’t think the boys who betrayed her trust should be charged with a crime, either—they should be harshly disciplined by the school and grounded until the end of time by their parents—but if anyone committed a wrong, it was them.
By now, there should be no remaining doubt: the war on teen sexting is much more harmful to kids than sexting itself. And the only party engaged in exploiting teenagers is the state.