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ACLU may sue over Greensburg teens' 'sexting' charges

| Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said the organization might sue over the filing of “sexting” charges against two Greensburg Salem Middle School students.

“I think the message is if the district attorney or police are using this situation to prosecute ... we will be looking to file a lawsuit and have it overturned,” Witold “Vic” Walczak said.

Using the state's sexting law, Greensburg police charged a 13-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy with transmission of sexually explicit images by minors, a summary offense.

Last fall, authorities said, the girl sent a topless photo of herself to the boy at his request. The boy then deleted the photo, police said.

The girl's mother discovered the photo and contacted authorities. Police then spoke to officials at the middle school and seized the boy's phone for analysis.

The photo was sent during a weekend and did not directly involve the school, Superintendent Eileen Amato said.

In October, Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law a measure that established a tiered system to adjudicate cases of sexting — the sending of nude or partially nude photos via cellphone.

A national discussion about sexting hit home when six Greensburg Salem High School students were involved in the exchange of explicit photos in 2008. The six were charged with felony offenses. At that time, critics said the law was too harsh for minors.

Neither child should have been charged in the most recent case, Walczak contends.

“This was our fear,” he said of how the sexting law would be applied. “It is good they are not charging kids with child pornography ... but in a situation like this, it's not a crime. You shouldn't be charged with anything.”

The girl's actions are protected under the U.S. Constitution, Walczak said.

“She has created an image,” he said. “Photographs are protected by the First Amendment.”

If the boy had sent the photo to others, then authorities could consider filing charges, Walczak added.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said he did not know enough about Walczak's claims to address them.

“Apparently this was a matter that was discussed with the family of the people involved, and the family was in agreement for this to proceed in his method,” Peck said.

Greensburg police Chief Walter “Wally” Lyons defended the filing of the summary charges before Greensburg District Judge James Albert.

“After we completed our investigation, we consulted with the Westmoreland County District Attorney's Office, and it was determined to file the summary charges against both individuals under the new statute,” Lyons said.

“In this particular case, I think everything that was done was done in the proper manner ... under the statute.”

Greensburg Salem officials regularly review with students the potential harm of sexting or improper use of the Internet, Amato said.

“I guess I agree with John Peck. It's a case of kids, teenagers, making bad choices,” she said.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or bstiles@tribweb.com.

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