Legal Lessons from Weinergate

There may be a silver lining to the sordid Anthony Weiner drama: The sext-happy congressman has drawn much-needed media attention to state legislative efforts to reform teen sexting penalties.

The AP’s David Klepper puts the issue succinctly:

A congressman who sends an X-rated photo of himself jeopardizes his reputation and his job. But in many states, teens caught doing the same thing can risk felony charges, jail time and being branded sexual offenders.

That’s because a minor who transmits a sexually explicit photo of themselves according to many state laws, is manufacturing and distributing child pornography.

This year, 21 state legislatures will consider bills that seek to lower penalties for teenagers caught exchanging nude photos. In Rep. Weiner’s own New York State, lawmakers are pushing to give judges the discretion to assign counseling to sexting teens in lieu of jail time.

On an educational front, Anthony Weiner may well prove invaluable as a cautionary tale for future generations of camera-happy teens. But more importantly—for lawmakers, Weinergate should be taken as proof that in an age when almost anyone can take and send photos from his phone in a matter of seconds, some people are bound to do things they’ll later regret.

20-year-old Phillip Alpert can attest to that: Two years ago, during a late-night fight with his 15-year-old longtime girlfriend, Alpert sent nude pictures of her to several acquaintances. It was a cruel thing to do—but Alpert has paid a high-price. He plead guilty to distributing child pornography and is now living as a registered sex offender. He can’t live near schools, parks, or bus stops; and he has to re-register every six months.

NYU Law Professor Amy Adler has studied cases like Alpert’s extensively and supports current legislative efforts to lower criminal penalties for teen sexting. She tells the AP:

“It’s an extraordinarily common behavior among kids, like it or not. I hope lawmakers and prosecutors figure out quickly how to address it, because it’s not going away.”