March 15, 2013

Maine seeks to change law on youth sexting

The measure aims to punish minors short of treating them as sexual predators or criminals.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA – Michael Gordon, a school resource officer at Sanford High School, says smartphones and shifting social media have driven an increase in "sexting" by students at the school.

"It's not like it's one particular type of kid," Gordon said. "I've had kids I've dealt with in juvenile justice before and I've had kids who were high honors and going off to an Ivy League school."

Teenagers who share sexually explicit text messages, even consensually between themselves, could be violating laws aimed at child pornographers. If convicted as an adult, a teenager could end up on the state's sex offender registry.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, which had a public hearing Friday before the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, would address that. But the way L.D. 662 would do so is unclear.

The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff who co-chairs the committee, is an open-ended concept draft, aiming to "create exceptions or other avenues in the law to discourage sexting by minors."

It also seeks ways to punish minors "short of treating them as sexual predators or serious criminals as current law does."

Supporters of the idea suggested that a balance will be needed between assessing maliciousness of individual acts and incorporating public education for middle- and high-school students.

Maine law doesn't specifically mention sexting, but sexually explicit images in a text message could be considered sexual exploitation of a minor, which is illegal.

Gordon said that when he has charged minors in connection with sexting, prosecutors haven't shown a willingness to try the cases, so most have been handled within schools or families.

"If you look at those (pornography) laws, it wasn't designed for the 14-year-old that's dating a girl and they're sending pictures back and forth," Gordon said. "I think we'll all agree the spirit of the law was more for predators that were out looking to take advantage of children."

But Gordon said sexting does have consequences: Bullying or harassment can happen when photos are distributed to people who aren't supposed to see them. But he doesn't think kids should be treated as criminals.

From 2009 to 2012, at least 20 states enacted laws to specifically address sexting by youths, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At Friday's hearing, Mastraccio and others suggested that the Criminal Justice Committee convene a task force on the issue, composed of school officials, police, prosecutors and other interested parties.

Gordon said police, who need parents' permission to get access to students' cellphones and other devices, should be given the power to seize and delete images from phones to prevent distribution.

Oamshri Amarasingham, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the organization supports the bill but wouldn't recommend adding legal penalties for minors who send sexual text messages.

"Legal sanctions are unlikely to deter minors from the practice of sexting, and we oppose the creation of new laws that are likely to be violated," she said. "Public education, not legal sanction, is the appropriate means to address the practice of sexting."

Not all sexting is the same, so all of it shouldn't be punished the same way, said Elizabeth Ward Saxl, director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Violence. For example, two minors sending each other messages in a relationship is less malicious than one of the partners forwarding those messages to others after a breakup.

"Our primary concern is less with the behavior that is consensual in nature and more about bullying, harassing and rooted in gender bias or sexual harassment," she said.

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

On Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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