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US mums sue anti-sexting crusader

Birds bite back

The mothers of three high-school girls threatened with child-pornography charges have fired back with a lawsuit that accuses their district attorney of retaliating against them for refusing to attend a "re-education program."

The crime that George Skumanick, Jr., district attorney of Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, believes warrants a five-week, 10-hour re-education program is the increasingly ubiquitous teenage divertissement known as "sexting" - snapping semi-salacious photos of oneself or one's mates with a camera phone and sharing them with friends.

Possibly not the most sophisticated use of digital technology, but hardly one that warrants being branded a felony child pornographer and being forced to register as a sex offender.

Which is exactly what Skumanick threatened the sexter trio if they didn't attend the re-education program where, as the lawsuit claims, "the girls must discuss why their conduct was wrong and what it means to be a girl."

What a 50-year-old DA knows about what it means to be a girl, we'll leave to your imagination. We will, however, note that The New York Times reports that Skumanick is up for reelection in November. What that impending election implies about his motivation is grist for your imagination as well.

The case began at a slumber party. During that traditional adolescent coming-of-age ritual, two of the girls were photographed from the waist up, wearing opaque white bras - and one was flashing the peace sign. A second photo shows the third girl post-shower with a towel wrapped around her just below her breasts.

Innocent teenage fun. Until the grown-ups got involved.

In October 2008, several students' cell phones were confiscated by officials at Tunkhannock Area High School in Pennsylvania. The school officials dug into the phones - quite possibly a violation of those students' privacy - and found photos of scantily clad, semi-nude, and nude teenage girls.

The school district turned over the phones to Skumanick, who was apparently shocked - shocked! - that teens were using technology to explore their budding sexuality.

He shouldn't have been. According to a study called Sex and Tech (PDF) by the The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 22 percent of girls between 13 and 19 have shared or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves, and 36 per cent had sent suggestive text messages. Of those, 71 per cent sent them to their boyfriends.

To Skumanick, though, the Tunkhannock titillation warranted strong moral outrage and decisive legal action. In November 2008, he told both reporters and students at a school assembly that kids whose phones contain such images of minors may be prosecuted for "sexual abuse of children" or "criminal use of a communication facility."

The high-minded DA also told whomever would listen that both charges are felonies that could result in a seven-year-prison sentence and that convicted sexters would have a permanent record - meaning that they would be subject to sex-offender registration for a minimum of ten years and have their names and photos displayed on Pennsylvania's sex-offender website.

And, no, not those photos.

But Skumanick offered the offending kids a way to avoid him ruining their lives. This February, he sent letters to the parents of kids whose images appeared on the confiscated phones, informing them that their child "has been identified in a police investigation involving the possession and/or dissemination of child pornography," telling them of his re-education program, and warning them that charges would be filed against those that refused to attend.

After a series of meetings with the parents involved, during which many of the parents objected to his characterization of the photos that their kids had posed "provocatively" - even when wearing bathing suits, Skumanick reiterated his threat, adding "these are the rules if you don't like them, too bad."

All of the parents and students knuckled under and got re-educated. Except for the three mothers who filed the lawsuit on Monday on behalf of their minor daughters.

The lawsuit details applicable Pennsylvania law and concludes that nothing that the three girls did could be remotely considered as participating in child pornography. It asserts that the photos in question are protected by the First Amendment and notes that "Skumanick's insistence that the plaintiff parents force their children to attend a re-education course interferes with the parents’ right to direct and control their children’s upbringing."

Skumanick, however, remains unfazed. The New York Times quotes the campaigning crusader as saying: "I'm simply giving them an option. We're not forcing anybody to do anything. Frankly, it's sad to me that their parents don't realize this is wrong and they should be encouraging them to take the classes."

Frankly, Mr. Skumanick, we don't care what makes you "sad." We care about the fair and rational application of the law, the ability of kids to make their own mistakes without paying draconian penalties, and the rights of parents to not have their children targeted by moral crusaders. ®

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