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State Sen. Kirk Watson has an ally célèbre in his effort to create a law that would better address "sexting" among teenagers texting nude photos of themselves and others: Whoopi Goldberg, comedian and co-host of ABC’s daytime talk show, The View.
"Words I never figured I’d tweet," Watson said on Twitter Feb. 9. "My sexting bill, discussed on The View."
Watson linked to video of the previous day’s episode where Goldberg floated his proposal by her co-hosts, Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
Goldberg said: "There’s a measure on the table in Texas to make teen sexting a Class C misdemeanor, requiring teens to make a court appearance and parents to attend a ‘sext’ education program. Right now, sexting is a felony offense for teenagers — that can mean up to 10 years in prison."
Ten years for texting nude photos? ABC spokesman Karl Nilsson pointed us to two news reports on Watson’s measure including a Feb. 7 report by Austin’s KXAN-TV, Channel 36, which appeared on CNN's website Feb. 8. In that report, Watson says prosecutors can either bring sexting cases "under our very strict child pornography laws, or do nothing."
Some background: In November, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Watson and Attorney General Greg Abbott were working to allow the prosecution of minors on a Class C misdemeanor charge instead of the third-degree felony charge they now face.
In a 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 22 percent of teenage girls and 18 percent of teenage boys said they had electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude photos of themselves.
Bill Albert, a spokesman for the Washington-based organization, told us the group hasn’t looked into how often sexting has been prosecuted nationwide. Albert suggested we seek information on the prevalence of prosecutions from Parry Aftab, a New Jersey-based privacy lawyer, who estimated that about 50 sexting cases have cropped up nationally in the last year, but Aftab said the majority were dismissed.
Under Watson’s Senate Bill 407, filed Jan. 25, minors could face a year in county jail and up to a $4,000 fine, and judges could order minors and parents to participate in an education program about the social and criminal risks of texting explicit images.
No Texas law specifies sexting as a crime. Instead, as Abbott explains on the attorney general’s website, "the owner of a computer or cell phone containing pictures of nude or semi-nude minors can be investigated and prosecuted on felony child pornography charges. Teenagers in possession of sexually suggestive images of classmates or companions under 18 could face up to 10 years in prison."
Abbott adds that prosecution is by no means certain: "Of course, investigators and prosecutors consider the circumstances of each case before deciding whether — and which — charges may apply." On Feb. 8, the Statesman reported that Abbott said he was unaware of any Texas teenagers prosecuted under the law. Dayna Blazey, a Travis County assistant district attorney, later echoed Abbott’s rendition of the law; she also had no information on the number of teenage "sexters" who have been prosecuted.
Later, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley told us his office has fielded several sexting claims involving teenagers. He said he couldn’t recall if his office had charged a teenage "sexter" with a felony offense, but said that after working with all parties involved, his office has prosecuted teenage "sexters" with misdemeanor charges that can lead to a fine, sentences of less than a year in jail or both.
So, Goldberg is correct that a Texas "sexter" could now end up with a 10-year prison term, but that’s if they’re prosecuted for child pornography — apparently a rare occurrence. Contrary to Goldberg’s declaration, sexting in itself is not a felony in Texas for anyone, including teenagers.
We rate Goldberg’s statement as Half True.
State Sen. Kirk Watson’s tweet, Feb. 9, 2011
The View, Full episode from Feb. 8, 2011 (starts at the 16:06 mark)
Austin American-Statesman, Change in ‘sexting’ bill adds education for teens’ parents, Feb. 8, 2011
Austin American-Statesman, Penalty change for ‘sexting’ proposed, Nov. 8, 2010
Senate Bill 407, filed Jan. 25, 2011, accessed Feb. 10, 2011
Office of the Attorney General, Letter from Attorney General Greg Abbott: Dangerous ramifications of sexting, Feb. 1, 2010
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Sex and Tech: Results from a survey of teens and young adults (surveyed between Sept. 25, 2008, and October 3, 2008)
Interview with Dayna Blazey, assistant district attorney, Travis County District Attorney’s Office, Feb. 11, 2011
E-mail interview with Jori Petersen, Karl Nilsson, ABC Media Relations, Feb. 14, 2011
Interview with Bill Albert, chief program officer, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Feb. 14, 2011
Interview with Perry Aftab, privacy lawyer, Feb. 14, 2011
Interview with John Bradley, district attorney, Williamson County, Feb. 15, 2011
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