Even before Shakespeare penned Romeo and Juliet, the confluence of adolescence with sexual awakening had been recognized as a potent recipe for bad judgment and life-changing mistakes. Now virtual flirting — so-called sexting — has raised the stakes even though harsh criminal laws are often an inappropriate tool for teaching restraint. The Florida House on Friday voted to lessen the criminal consequences for teens caught transmitting nude photos of themselves. The Senate should concur. Such poor youthful decisions should be teachable moments about privacy and restraint, not life-altering felonies.
Under current law, sending nude photos of adults on mobile phones or through computer e-mail is protected free speech when conducted by two consenting adults. But in a surprise for most teenagers who have embraced sexting, it's illegal under child pornography laws when the image transmitted is of a nude minor — even when the subject of the photo takes and sends the picture, usually in a misguided attempt to impress a fellow adolescent.
The criminal consequences under current state law mean even underage "sexters" can be charged as felons and forced to register as sex offenders — the modern version of the scarlet letter that will affect their lives for years. But under SB 888 and HB 75, Florida would make a first offense by a minor (images transmitted in a single 24-hour period) punishable by a $60 fine or eight hours of community service, with escalating charges and penalties for each additional offense. A second offense would be a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 100 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. A third offense would be a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Minors still could be charged with other offenses related to sexting, such as stalking, and the lesser penalties would not apply to adult offenders. But the bills are an appropriate acknowledgement that teens' propensity for poor judgment must be considered in meting out criminal punishment.
But just as important is delivering a message to a generation raised on technology and surrounded by sexually charged media. As highlighted in a recent article on youth sexting in the New York Times, the most damning consequence of sexting is often not prosecution but the permanent invasion of a youth's privacy and the lasting embarrassment.
Once an image is sent electronically, it cannot be retrieved. And in middle schools and high schools, where children frequently forward such pictures maliciously, that can be just as haunting as an official government-sanctioned scarlet letter.