Young love is confusing. In Ohio, legislators want to make it criminal—at least when it's mediated through modern technology. Last week, members of the House Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously in favor of a bill to ban teen sexting, even for some teenagers who are legally adults.
Under the proposed measure (H.B. 355), teens could still have sex with each other without the state stepping in. But a teen who sends sexualized imagery of him- or herself to another teen would be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor. And the same goes for kids on the receiving end of sext-messages.
The ban would apply to Ohioans ages 13 to 18.
That's right: Ohio lawmakers apparently think that age 18 is old enough to marry, vote, or join the Army, but not old enough to control naked images of your own body.
Teens found guilty of sexting could be sentenced to a "sexting educational diversion program," to be developed by county courts, upon completion of which they would see the sexting charge dismissed. But judges would be free to overlook this program, and minors with previous sex-related offenses on their records would not be eligible.
Outside the diversion program, a sexting charge could lead to a sentence o eight hours of community service—a light punishment that the bill's supporters have brandished to make their proposal more palatable. But of course, community service is just the immediate punishment. The real harm comes from saddling these kids with criminal records for the rest of their lives.
"The stigma behind any criminal conviction is severe, but to tar these kids as sex offenders could quite literally ruin their lives," writes Celine Coming, communications manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. "This charge could make it impossible for young people to access opportunities for education, housing, and employment for years to come."
The bill's sponsors have argued that theirs is a compassionate plan because it gives prosecutors an option to avoid charging teen sexters with more serious child pornography charges. But there's nothing requiring the state's cops to crack down on teen sexting to begin with, and even when they do, prosecutors could use their discretion to not bring child porn charges. And if legislators think overzealous prosecutors are the problem, they could always pass legislation prohibiting juvenile sexters from being charged as child-porn producers.
Instead, they're simply adding on another possible charge for law enforcement to slap onto texting teens. As H.B. 355 explicitly states, "prosecution of a person for a violation of" the teen sexting ban "does not preclude prosecution of that person for a violation of any other section" of Ohio criminal law and "an act that can be prosecuted under this section or any other section of the Revised Code may be prosecuted under this section, the other section, or both sections."