Des Moines, IA – A teenager is facing a charge of sexual exploitation from the Marion County Attorney for sending non-nude pictures to a high school classmate. The teen, named Nancy Doe to protect her identity, was caught up in a “sexting” investigation earlier this year, where law enforcement found nude and semi=nude photos sent by male and female students at Knoxville high school.
One photo that put Ms. Doe in the crosshairs of Attorney Ed Bull showed her wearing a sports bra and shorts, and the other showed her topless in the same shorts with her hair covering her breasts.
In response to this bewildering prosecutorial aggression against the freshman student, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU ) of Iowa filed a federal lawsuit to block Bull from filing the charge. The ACLU states that since the photos were not obscene, they are protected as free speech under the First Amendment.
The civil rights organization is going further by arguing that the law allowing for this sexual exploitation charge is outdated and discriminatory — especially considering the fact that a male sending a photo of his chest exposed would not face similar charges.
“Boys would not be prosecuted for taking the exact same picture that Ms. Doe is,” said Glen Downey, a Des Moines civil rights lawyer who filed the lawsuit and is now partnering with the ACLU. “We think it’s particularly important that prosecutors realize they can’t single out girls for enhanced prosecution.”
Downey is attempting to build on the success of previous lawsuits which demonstrated that laws banning women from being topless in public are discriminatory. The amended complaint in the case of Ms. Doe states that Bull’s use of Iowa law “is intended to perpetuate traditional gender roles and sex stereotypes about women’s and girls’ bodies.”
In defending his case, Bull dodged the fundamental question of whether this is an excessive use of State force, instead pointing to the “diversion option” he offered Ms. Doe. To avoid being criminally charged, she would have to “take a class about the dangers of “sexting,” make a written admission of guilt and accept restrictions on her computer and cellphone use.”
“This lawsuit is the result of efforts made by my office to respond to a situation where numerous juveniles had exchanged sexually explicit photographs,” Bull said in a September statement. “Rather than take every juvenile to court, I looked for a solution that would help them learn from their mistakes and hopefully prevent their behavior from being repeated, while allowing them to avoid having a criminal or juvenile conviction or even a charge on their record.”
Alan Ostergren, president of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, has also defended Bull. “He sought to provide something that would be educational and rehabilitative, that these young people could learn a lesson about responsible behavior,” Ostergren said after the lawsuit was filed.”
These statements reveal a longing to preserve outdated notions of tradition and proper behavior, and they completely ignore the frightening reality of their punitive actions. Here we have a kid making her way through the trials and tribulations of high school, developing herself to meet the challenges of adulthood, who is suddenly targeted by government for behavior deemed inappropriate and criminal.
Such a ruthless intervention in her life would do far more damage than any pictures she sent to a classmate and pre-empts the right of the parents to raise their child in the way they see fit.
“The Does are reasonably concerned that the pretrial diversion program would have a harmful effect on their daughter’s self-esteem and punish her for doing something that was hardly obscene or against the law,” Bettis said in a news release. “They do not want her to be labeled or shamed for her behavior.”
Bull said he will not prosecute the teenage girl while the ACLU lawsuit is pending. Perhaps during this time, he can reflect on whether his own behavior in going after this kid is “responsible.”