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Child porn in the age of teenage 'sexting'

Two cases show right, wrong way to prosecute

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Analysis An international child pornography ring that traded more than 400,000 illegal images and videos - some depicting pre-pubescent children in sexual and sadistic acts - is the kind of heinous behavior that makes you glad there are strict laws against such things. Seven US men were convicted of the crime on Wednesday.

Then there are the miscarriages of such laws, like the charging this week of six Pennsylvania teens alleged to have sent and received nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves on cell phones. It's the kind of case overzealous prosecutors have begun bringing with alarming frequency over the past year or two.

There's a stark difference between the two sorts of crimes. The first represent the almost unspeakable depravity of adult monsters who prey on the utterly defenseless. The latter threaten to brand individuals who have yet to reach the age of 18 as sex offenders for indiscretions that are largely victimless.

To recap, the seven men were convicted by a federal jury in Florida after being accused of participating in a well-organized enterprise that used internet newsgroups to proliferate child sex abuse images to its membership over a two-year period. Participants used a complex system of pseudonyms, encryption methods, and screening tests for new members to conceal their conspiracy.

The members operated with a brazenness that was shocking. "My thanks to you and all the others that together make this the greatest group of pedos to ever gather in one place," one of the convicted men wrote in a posting to other participants, according to court documents. A posting from another participant, also cited in documents, read: "Thanks to all for the wonderful material that has been posted."

Each convicted man faces a minimum prison sentence of 20 years and a maximum of life. And rightfully so.

Now compare that to case filed against six students from Greensburg-Salem High School in Western Pennsylvania. Three girls ages 14 and 15 are accused of taking nude or semi-nude self-portraits of themselves and sending them using their cell phones to three boys, ages 16 and 17. If convicted of manufacturing, disseminating, or possessing child pornography (the girls) or sexual abuse of a child (the boys) they will likely have to register as sex offenders and could also face incarceration. That amounts to a scarlet letter that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

The proliferation of cell phones means it's easier than ever for teens (and everyone else) to photograph themselves in various states of undress and zap the images all over the place in the wink of an eye. No wonder one national survey, cited here, found that 20 percent of teens have admitted to "sexting."

If the point of tough child pornography laws is to protect vulnerable kids against predatory creeps, where's the sense in using those same statutes to go after juveniles who naively, if misguidedly, take nude photos of themselves and send them to others? Modern technology has given kids an unprecedented ability to become photographers and publishers. Prosecutors who don't wake up to this new reality risk branding victims as predators. ®

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