February 7, 2011
Attorney General Greg Abbott and Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, want “sexting” — sending or receiving pornographic images via cell phones — to be a criminal offense for teenagers. Watson filed a bill last week that would making sexting illegal and require schools to educate children about the social and legal repercussions of their actions.
“Prior to this proposed bill prosecutors really only had two options for dealing with young people, teens who engaged in sexting,” Watson said. “They could either prosecute them under our very strict adult pornography laws or do nothing.”
Abbott says there haven’t been any prosecutions in Texas for sexting — but 20 percent of girls say they’ve sent sexually explicit pictures of themselves to others on their cell phones. Making sexting a distinct offense for minors will give teenagers the opportunity to expunge their records so they can apply to college without the stigma of a criminal felony, Abbott said. They also won’t be added to the state’s sex offender registry.
Under the proposed legislation, teens caught “sexting” could face up to a Class A Misdemeanor. Parents could also face penalties. A judge could require both a parent and their teenager to attend educational activities and pay for the classes.
“Here’s the message to parents — pay attention to this new technology,” Watson said. “Pay attention to your kids. Know what it is they’re doing with regard to text messages, sending images and that sort of thing, and take the time to talk to them.”
The law also provides an out for the “innocent recipients of these sexual images,” Abbott said. If a teenager turns images over to authorities within 48 hours of receiving them, he or she will have an affirmative defense against prosecution. Abbott says this provision protects teenagers, because it is currently a felony to possess such images.
“This is done by people at such a young age [that] they really don’t understand the consequences of what they’re doing,” Abbott said. He said it’s important that a young person who makes a stupid mistake isn’t stuck with a “criminal conviction that could put them behind bars.”