Can the Government Really Save You From Yourself? – by “Thad D”

Court Photo
The Plaintiffs Appear in Court, Represented by the ACLU

On January 15th, 2010, the case of Miller v. Skumanick continued in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.  For those of you unfamiliar with the case, in Pennsylvania, Tunkhannock School District officials discovered cell phone photos of high school girls posing “provocatively” in late October 2008.  The two photos discussed in Miller’s suit involve one depicting a teenager with a towel wrapped around her waist and her breasts exposed (like she just took a shower), and another depicting two girls in training bras making “peace signs” for the camera.  School officials handed the cell phones over to the office of the District Attorney, George Skumanick, who decided to meet with all students involved and offer them a deal: either they would take an education course or face prosecution on charges of distributing child pornography.  Parents would have to pay the course enrollment fee and the course itself would discuss, among other things, “what it meant to be a girl in today’s society” and an essay each student would have to write describing why what they did was wrong.

[Notice that, in last month’s proceedings, the defense refers to the admission of guilt as having to write an essay about why it was “unwise to send those photographs” – the word ‘wrong’ being intentionally omitted].

At any rate, the plaintiffs, feeling that their constitutional rights were being infringed upon, filed an injunction to prevent District Attorney Skumanick from taking prosecutorial action.

Although this case touches on a host of today’s hot issues, what is interesting to note is the concept consistently raised by the defense that Skumanick’s office was “protecting the children from themselves”.  This post is a mixture between a response to and an analysis of an article from (aptly titled “Ruining Kids in Order to Save Them”).

So, what do the defendants mean in describing their prosecutorial discretion as ‘saving the kids from themselves’?  In this, the defense is very clear: “Children are immature, children are vulnerable.  The entire basis of the juvenile code is to protect children from themselves…When kids disseminate pictures of themselves through the Internet they are putting themselves and other children at risk.” (Miller – Oral Arguments, pp. 15-16).

The defense is adamant and clear in its stance.  What is more important though is to ask whether or not this line of thinking applicable.  What are we really trying to accomplish in doing this?  Certainly, children who are abused and exploited become victims the moment the action takes place.  Disseminating images of this child pornography does create a huge problem in our society, and provokes and encourages this socially unacceptable behavior.

But what if a teenager posted a picture to Facebook of herself posing in a bikini, or himself not wearing a shirt on the beach, or some other scenario where the youth was, simply put, not dressed in accordance with Sharia law.  We may laugh at the ridiculousness of calling such a photo pornography, but I should remind you that two of the girls facing prosecution had opaque training bras on, and no genitalia or breasts exposed, in the “pornographic” photo.

From the reaction of the girls in this case, it’s clear to see that they felt no more victimized by these photos than if their parents had taken pictures of them on the beach in two piece bathing suits.  In fact, District Attorney, in his meeting with the children, had commented that he could prosecute teenagers who appeared in pictures wearing bikinis, based on his enforcement of the Pennsylvania statute on child pornography.

Given what I’ve said, it’s easy to dismiss Mr. Skumanick as a reactionary zealot, and these photos as incredibly innocent and, more importantly, victimless.  But, perhaps the plaintiffs are truly too immature, and unable to understand whether or not they are being victimized.  Whether one buys the argument that until one is older than 18 years old they are not mature enough to make serious decisions is an entirely different issue, one too lengthy to delve into here.

However, if these children are indeed too immature, are their parents wrong in deciding that the photos of their children are not obscene?  Do public officials have the right to enforce their judgment over the head of parents? And if so, where do we draw the line on what issues those officials have the right to meddle in?

In this case, at the very least, it would seem that the prosecution is making a mountain out of a molehill.  And honestly, since Skumanick pursued prosecution against the teenagers at the beginning of an election year, it’s pretty transparent to see what he was trying to accomplish (Hint: it rhymes with “me-election”).  However, in noting all the shortcomings of our legal system, and the loopholes that a few avaricious public officials will claw their way through to assume the national spotlight, we should reflect on the importance of the laws that occasionally harm our citizens.

Stockholm syndrome, a serious psychological effect, occurs when a hostage falls in love with the person who has captured them.  Related, but slightly different, is when a victim falls in love with their tormenter.   Hypothetically, if a child had had photos taken of them by a parent or guardian where they appeared fully clothed, but in provocative poses, and had willingly disseminated those photos at the request of the parent or guardian (because they still loved and obeyed him or her), the state would have no recourse against said parent.  Although contrived, the case still applies; as in the scenario no physical abuse would take place, but inappropriate photos of a juvenile would be distributed, and the crime would not be “victimless”.

The issue of government intervention in parenting has always been contentious.  But as kids get access to newer, more powerful technological tools at earlier and earlier stages of life, the issue of morality, parenting, and technology will more often rear its ugly head.

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