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Law student suggests changes to ‘sexting’ laws

BY CAITLIN FRY | JANUARY 18, 2011 7:10 AM

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A simple text can ruin someone’s life forever. That is, if it’s a “sext.”

University of Iowa third-year law student Elizabeth Ryan is trying to prevent the life-altering destruction sexting can have on the lives of teens and young adults.

Ryan hopes her article, “Sexting: How the State Can Prevent a Moment of Indiscretion from Leading to a Lifetime of Unintended Consequences for Minors and Young Adults,” published in the November Iowa Law Review, will bring attention to an issue she said has become more prevalent as technology continues to develop.

Her article suggests that states may benefit from creating new laws against sexting instead of relying on old laws regarding obscenity or pornography, which often come with harsh punishments.

“The development of various media and social networking creates lots of opportunity for sexting to be posted and encouraged,” she said.

Under the Iowa Code sexting includes the sexual exploitation of a minor, telephone dissemination of obscene material to minors, or both. Charges can range from a misdemeanor to a felony.

In a survey conducted by TRU, a company that distributes research on young adults, 20 percent of teens ages 13 to 19 have electronically sent or posted online nude pictures, semi-nude pictures, or videos of themselves.

Ryan became interested in the sexting debate after seeing news stories about teenagers and young adults experiencing humiliation and potentially committing suicide as a result of a sext.

“Lawmakers are trying to come from a good place,” she said. “The adults are thinking about how [sexting] will affect kids’ futures, but the way they’re doing it is punitive.”

In 2005, the Iowa Supreme Court found Jorge Canal Jr. guilty of knowingly disseminating obscene material to a minor when he sent two pictures, one of his genitals, to a 14-year-old fellow high-school student. He was 18 years old at the time, and he had to register as a sex offender.

While the laws are in place in several states, Ryan said, they will not stay relevant as technology advances and social networking widens.

Her article stressed secondary sexting, which she describes as an instance in which the original recipient of the sext shares it with various unintended outside parties.

Michael Ferjak, an investigator for the Iowa Department of Justice, said Ryan’s ideas are worthy of further study, but it may not be a priority for the state right now.

But Ferjak said sexting is a rising issue.

“Personally, I would say that it is an issue that ranks in the top three faced by school administrators and law-enforcement officers who are specifically assigned to cyber-crime units,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa is another local group involved in the sexting debate.

The executive director of the group, Ben Stone, recalled a sexting case the group heard about in from Pennsylvania, which sparked discussion.

“The teenager was just interacting with his or her significant other by sending them a picture, and it was easy for the teenager’s free speech to be harshly prosecuted,” he said.


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