State Politics

Bill makes first teen ‘sexting’ not a crime

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers acknowledged Monday what teenagers know best: “Sexting,” as inappropriate as it seems, is not child pornography.

A measure to decriminalize the first offense of sexting — in which teenagers trade sexually explicit images via cellphones and social-networking sites — won initial approval in a House committee.

“This, I believe, will protect our children,” said state Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, who sponsored the bill. “We shouldn’t be labeling our children sexual predators from this type of behavior.”

The measure (HB 1335) separates this new form of digital intimacy from the harsh punishments of child pornography laws, but it does criminalize subsequent offenses.

A teenager caught sending or possessing an explicit self-portrait of another minor faces eight hours of community service for the first offense, while the second time is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

On a fourth offense, a teenager faces five years in prison, a third-degree felony. But lawmakers did give leeway, saying images sent within a 24-hour period would count only as one offense.

“This will prevent teens from getting a bad rap sheet,” said Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, who supported the bill. “But I think at some point someone has to take some accountability and responsibility for their behavior.”

The legislation reflects a national movement to address a troubling element of a teenage cyberculture but also the recognizes that a 14-year-old girl caught sending an image to her teenage boyfriend is not a hardened criminal.

The cases of two Florida teens who were sexting brought widespread attention to the issue.

In 2007, Phillip Alpert, an 18-year-old from Orlando, e-mailed a nude photo of his 16-year-old girlfriend to dozens of people and her parents, which led to his getting five years of probation and to his being registered as a sex offender. In 2009, a 13-year-old Ruskin girl named Hope Witsell committed suicide days after a nude photo she sent to a boy she liked was distributed among students at two schools.

“Sexting is a part of cyber-bullying,” said Robin Rose, executive director of the Ophelia Project & Boys Initiative, a Tampa nonprofit organization that focuses on youth development. “They want to be sexy, and this is what happens.”

The legislation would not help those like Alpert, who turn 18 and become adults in the eyes of the law. Legislators admit that it is difficult to police teenage experimentation in a digital era, but they agree that teenagers need room to make a mistake.

“There is a recognition that teenagers have a tendency to be impulsive,” said state Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa.