Legislation gaining momentum this week in the Pennsylvania General Assembly takes steps to protect young people from harmful activities with social media, the Internet and mobile devices.
One of the bills awaiting Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature would establish misdemeanor or summary offenses for minors who transmit nude or sexually explicit images of themselves or other youths — a practice known as sexting. Another bill further addresses “cyberbullying” that causes emotional distress for a young person via electronic communication.
Without a new law, one of the few choices for prosecuting someone for sexting is a child pornography charge.
“Right now, it’s nothing or a felony,” said state Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin/Adams/York.
The new law would impose a summary offense or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances in the case.
Alloway said he has mixed feelings about a sexting law because he could understand juveniles making mistakes and sharing pictures with each other. However, he said the law would protect them from the felony charge that could tarnish their reputations forever.
“As a former district justice, I fully support it being a summary offense,” Alloway said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman is state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, held hearings all summer to prepare this legislation for votes this month, according to Alloway.
In 2009, Chambersburg, Pa., police oversaw a sexting investigation involving about 40 students at Chambersburg Area Senior High School. Police said about 30 photos of girls “in varying stage of undress” circulated via cell phone and computer, but no charges were filed.
Franklin County (Pa.) District Attorney Matt Fogal said he has talked about sexting to school audiences several times as part of a public awareness campaign.
“That was chiefly because the potential penalties were so severe,” Fogal said in a phone interview.
Felony child pornography offenses were designed for adults with pornographic pictures of youths, not teenagers taking pictures of themselves with a camera phone for a friend or significant other, Fogal said.
“I definitely support this legislation. ... The technology advanced over the criminal offense,” he said.
Greencastle-Antrim School District Superintendent C. Gregory Hoover said students are prohibited from using their cell phones during the school day. He said the school would become involved in reports of sexting if they occurred on school property or were affecting education.
“It’s a growing concern, and catching them (with the mobile devices) is getting harder,” he said.
Hoover said he considers Greencastle-Antrim fortunate in that it has not had a widespread issue like what Chambersburg experienced.
Fogal said that regardless of the law and criminal penalties, people need to have common sense about taking sexually explicit pictures with technology that can transmit something internationally in seconds.
“Once a picture is taken, you can’t control how far it goes or the implications of that,” he said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.