Speaker of the House Paul Ryan
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan

Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason:

Teens who text each other explicit images could be subject to 15 years in federal prison under a new bill that just passed the House of Representatives.... Most of the opposition centered on the bill's effective expansion of mandatory-minimum prison sentences. One vocal critic was Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), who called the legislation "particularly appalling" because it would "apply to people who I think we should all agree should not be subject" to long mandatory minimums. "Under this law, teenagers who engage in consensual conduct and send photos of a sexual nature to their friends or even to each other may be prosecuted and the judge must sentence them to at least 15 years in prison," said Scott on the House floor. What's more, "the law explicitly states that the mandatory minimums will apply equally to an attempt or a conspiracy," Scott noted.

Did you catch that? It's not just sexting—actually sending or receiving sexts—that could get your kid sent to prison for 15 years. Your kid could get 15 years for attempting to send or receive a sext. Let's say a 15-year-old kid—let's say your 15-year-old kid—asks their boyfriend or girlfriend to send them a dirty picture (something millions of teenagers do everyday), the BF/GF's parents see the request, they turn it over to the police. Your kid goes to prison until they're 30 years old. Or your kid, terrified at the prospect of a long prison sentence, is forced to take a plea deal offered by an overzealous prosecutor: probation, community service, and having to register as a sex offender for the rest of their life, which will make it impossible for your kid to get an education, find a job, or a place to live. It's a social death sentence—just the threat of which has prompted more than one teenager to kill themselves.

If this stupid, dangerous law sails through the Senate the way it sailed through the house, it's basically a license to toss every other teenager in the country in jail. CNN:

More than half the undergraduate students who took part in an anonymous online survey said they sexted when they were teenagers, according to the study by Drexel University, which was published in June by the Journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy. Nearly 30% said they included photos in their sexts, and an astonishing 61% did not know that sending nude photos via text could be considered child pornography.

That study pre-dates Snapchat, which allows teenagers—and others—to send pics and short videos that can't be forwarded and are automatically deleted after viewing. So arguably more teens are sexting now than were sexting in 2014, when that CNN story was published. This law criminalizes a form of flirting and sexual expression that is ubiquitous and it will be abused.

Sexting can be risky, of course, like anything else. Slut shaming combined with sexts weaponized as revenge porn have also led to suicides. Revenge porn should be crime and in a growing number of places it is a crime. But there have been cases of police officers going into schools, gathering up smartphones, and searching for naked pictures. (Students: you don't have to submit to a search of your phone. Know your rights.) This law will open the doors to similar abuses.

Don't want you kid to go to jail? Or wind up on a sex offender registry? Or wind up dead? Call 202-224-3121, ask to be connected to the offices of your senators, and tell them to block this bill.