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Protection Gone Terribly Wrong: Baseless Child-Pornography Charges Against Teenage Girls In Pennsylvania

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March 27, 2009

(Originally posted on Feministing.)

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against Wyoming County (PA) district attorney George Skumanick, Jr., for threatening three high school girls with child pornography charges over digital photos of themselves in which they appear topless or in their underwear. Skumanick asserted that the girls were accomplices to the production of child pornography because they allowed themselves to be photographed. The threatened charges of sexual abuse of a minor could come with jail time and registration as sex offenders

Which seems even more extreme when you consider that Skumanick has not threatened to charge the individuals who distributed the photos in the first place. It also seems a little counter-intuitive, since child pornography laws are meant to protect children from being exploited, where as charging them with a felony and potentially subjecting them to being on a sex offender registry hardly seems protective.

Neither of the two photos in question depicts sexual activity or reveals anything below the waist.

One is a picture taken two years ago at a slumber party showing Marissa Miller (now 15) and her friend Grace Kelly from the waist up, both wearing white bras. The other depicts Nancy Doe (a pseudonym used to protect the girl’s real identity) standing outside a shower with a bath towel wrapped around her body beneath her breasts.

Skumanick actually offered the girls a deal. If they didn’t want to face charges, they could be placed on probation, subject to random drug testing, and attend a six- to nine-month re-education program dealing with pornography and sexual violence. The D.A. explained the objectives of that program in a letter he sent home to the parents. They include gaining “an understanding of what it means to be a girl in today’s society, both advantages and disadvantages,” and identifying “non-traditional societal and job roles.”

While our clients recognized the D.A.’s actions as a violation of their First and Fourth Amendment rights and turned to the ACLU for legal assistance, they were not the only ones offered this “choice” by Skumanick. 17 other students, 13 girls and 4 boys, accepted the deal from the D.A., including one girl who was shown in pictures in a bikini. Her parents asked the D.A. why on earth that would be child porn, and he said it was because she was “posed provocatively.”

Vic Walczak, Legal Director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement:

Kids should be taught that sharing digitized images of themselves in embarrassing or compromised positions can have bad consequences, but prosecutors should not be using heavy artillery like child-pornography charges to teach them that lesson…These are just kids being irresponsible and careless; they are not criminals and they certainly haven’t committed child pornography.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU charges that Skumanick is misusing his authority by threatening to bring baseless child-pornography charges in order to coerce parents into sending their children to the re-education program and putting them on probation. It also claims this is a form of unconstitutional retaliation against the parents and children who assert their right not to be bullied into participation. The ACLU is asking the federal court to issue an order prohibiting the district attorney from filing criminal charges against the girls.

In a hearing today in the U.S. District Court in Scranton, Judge James Munley gave D.A. Skumanick until tomorrow to file a brief.

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