Teenage Sexting, Child Pornography & Harassment

The Washington State Supreme Court just issued a decision in a case that will be over-simplistically referred as to a teenage sexting case. The details of the case reveal the incredible complexity in addressing child pornography and teenage “selfies” and harassment.

Case

State v. Gray; Docket No. 93609-9; Opinion Author – Owens; joined by Fairhurst, Johnson, Madsen, Stephens, and Wiggens; Dissent Author – McCloud; joined by Gonzalez and Yu; Attorney for Petitioners – Kathleen Shea & Washington Appellate Project; Attorney for Respondents Gretchen Eileen Verhoef 

Amicus Curaie: ACLU, Juvenile Law Center, Columbia Legal Services, and TeamChild

Basic Facts

When Eric Gray was 17 years old, he sent an unsolicited picture of his erect penis to an adult woman and invited her to share it with her daughter. (this is a little confusing as the recipient was 22 and it is unclear how old her daughter would have been) Mr. Gray had previously been convicted of a separate offense because at the time of this case, he was already a registered sex offender. Mr. Gray had allegedly been harassing the woman he sent the picture to for a year with unsolicited and repeated phone calls. To further complicate matters, Mr. Gray has an Asperger’s diagnosis, it was not discussed much in the opinion, but Asperger’s is a condition that can impair an individuals understanding of societal norms.

The State dismissed the telephone harassment charge and did not charge  “two counts of misdemeanor indecent exposure stemming from an unrelated incident.” (This is a short sentence that creates the impression there were more complaints regarding his behavior, likely in person).

The Law 

The law at issue is RCW 9.68A.050, which prohibits developing or disseminating sexually explicit images of minors.

 

Appellate Court Opinion

The major question and concern is whether child pornography laws can extend to minors taking sexual selfies. The majority took a textual approach and said the statute was clear and had no exceptions for juveniles. The Majority concluded it could not create the exception in an unambiguous statute.

As noted above, a “person” is any natural person and a “minor” is merely a person who is not yet 18. RCW 9A.04.110(17); RCW 9.68A.011(5). Under this statute, there is nothing to indicate the “minor” cannot also be the “person.” Contrary to Gray’s arguments, we find that had the legislature intended to exclude the depicted minor from the definition of “person,” it would have done so as it has in other sections in this chapter. …Because the legislature has not excluded minors from the definition of “person” here, Gray was properly charged under this statute.

The Majority acknowledged the concerns of amici about the possible consequences for teens engaging in consensual sexting, but stated that those facts were not before the court:

…our duty is to interpret the law as written and, if unambiguous, apply its plain meaning to the facts before us. Gray’s actions fall within the statute’s plain meaning. Because he was not a minor sending sexually explicit images to another consenting minor, we decline to analyze such a situation.

The Majority also address the Dissent argument about a law not being able to be used to prosecute those who are protected by the law, i.e., not charging a woman who has been trafficked with prostitution – basically arguing that is not what happened in this case, the minor engaged in unwanted behavior when the minor sent the text. The majority noted that this issue not involve the manufacturing of pornography, i.e., a child who was trafficked for pornography is not being charged with the manufacturing of pornography that the child had no choice in creating. The Majority makes a distinction with this case in that Mr. Gray acted alone, in fact, his attention was unwanted.

First Amendment Argument

The Majority rejected the First Amendment argument stating that child pornography does not enjoy First Amendment Protections. Gray attempted to argue that because the Supreme Court has struck down a law that prohibited computer generated child pornography, because it did not involve criminal activity that his selfie should have First Amendment protection.

The majority disagreed:

We find that RCW 9.68A.050 is not overbroad. It regulates only sexually explicit images of actual children, which is speech outside the protections of the First Amendment. Because Gray transmitted such an image, his actions do not fall under First Amendment protection.

 

The Dissent 

The main argument of the dissent is:

…when the legislature enacts a statute designed for the protection of one class—here, children depicted in sexually explicit conduct—it shows the legislature’s intent to protect members of that class from criminal liability for their own depiction in such conduct. … Since the legislature enacted RCW 9.68A.050 to protect those children, it necessarily follows that those children who are depicted and hence exploited are exempt from prosecution under RCW 9.68A.050 for such depictions of themselves.

The dissent goes on to say the majority’s interpretation

punishes children who text sexually explicit depictions of their own bodies to adults far more harshly that it punishes adults who do the same thing. It punishes children who text such depictions of their own bodies to adults even more harshly than adults who text such sexually explicit photos to children. It even punishes the child who is groomed and led into taking such photos and forwarding them to the grooming adult!

(superfluous exclamation point in the original).

The dissent discussed Mr. Gray’s Asperger’s diagnosis and notes that he is a “prime example of someone who would benefit more from treatment and specialized services regarding appropriate social behavior than from incarceration or the social isolation of registering as a sex offender.” (This neglects to acknowledge that regardless of what happened in this case, he was a registered sex offender due to a prior adjudication- the details of what led him to have the initial sex offender registry requirement are not discussed in this case. )

The other points of the dissent were discussed above through discussing the Majority’s response to their arguments.

Additional thoughts on the case

There is a idiom in the law that bad facts make made law. In some ways, that may be a bit of what happened here. This is a case where it is hard to be sympathetic to the minor. He engaged in unwanted sexual conduct. He arguably put the adult woman, who did not want his attention, in a bad position because she had child pornography on her phone. What would have happened if she had not told the police and it somehow came out that she had child pornography? Even if she tried to delete it?

The Dissent focused on the instances where “better facts” may have created opportunities to create exceptions in the law, like grooming and the claim that photos sent in connection with grooming would result in the prosecution of the child. But the ideal facts weren’t before the court, instead the instant case involved a minor who sent unwanted photos as a part of a yearlong harassment of the recipient. This is a crucial difference that would seem to create a situation that does not trigger protecting the child as a possible victim.

In our government that seeks to be a balance of powers, this case is perhaps an important trigger for our state legislature to address this issue and to do so in a more informed way than can be done through case law can do.

Here’s a link to some 2015 research on what states have done regarding sexting. Some of the things this chart included where whether the sexting law addressed issues of minors – sending or receiving, penalty diversion, penalty informal, penalty misdemeanor, penalty felony, and interestingly whether a state has a revenge porn law. It also provides the summary of information about the state’s laws and links to find the statutes. Some interesting examples are:

New York
The two persons involved in sending and receiving the message must both be under twenty and must be within five years of age from each other. They will have to participate in an education reform program that involves a maximum of eight hours of instruction that provides information regarding the legal consequences and non-legal consequences of sexting, and the problems associated with technology and bullying.
http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?default_fld=&bn=A08170&term=2011&Summary=Y&Text=Y

 

North Dakota
It is a misdemeanor to create or possess a sexually expressive image without written consent of the individual. It is a misdemeanor to send sexually expressive images with the intent to harm the individual in the image who has a reasonable expectation of privacy; or after being told by the individual, parent or guardian does not consent to distribute the image.
http://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/62-2011/documents/11-8225-02000.pdf

Interestingly most of the discussion on this chart seems to address a particular issue where something occurs in a nonconsenual manner, i.e., one child has in their possession a photo of another and forwards it on in some way.

The question facing legislatures would be whether to completely remove any criminal penalties when minors send photos to each other. This issue is complicated because consent can be a complicated issue. In 2015, there was sexting scandal in two Bothell junior high schools (Canyon Park and Skyview junior highs). Girls were pressured to send photos, and any who sent a photo were pressured to send more or their initial photo would be disseminated. There was a Degrassi story line that involved a cheer team raising money by sending photos that was incredibly plausible.

There are also pressures about what couples do. “Sexting” is common enough that it has its own Wikipedia entry, which says it was included in 2012 in the Merriam-Wesbster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This Wikipedia entry also says a 2009 study (which is ancient in our evolving world of technology) claims that 4% of teens ages 14-17 have sent sexually explicit photos of themselves. Apparently there’s even a thing called “joke sexting” which may be a form of nonconsensual sexually explicit photos.

Revenge porn is definitely an issue. “Revenge porn” is when you send a sext to one person, like a significant other, you break-up (or they’re just a creep) and they forward it on to friends or even to your friends, teachers, employers, etc. Basically the first photo was consensual, but the future uses are nonconsensual.

Bottom line, sexting isn’t a simple issue. To assume that sexting is primarily photos sent in consensual manner and therefore there should not be any consequences for minors engaging in sexting is short-sighted. That being said, I’m not a fan of criminalizing minors and some of the diversion-type programs that other states have seem far more appropriate than more severe felony or sexual offense charges that could put teens on sexual registries. Perhaps if the laws can come up with some rational and ethical guidelines, they will make enough sense to youth to help them act in responsible ways, taking into consideration that no law will likely stop youth from sending sexually explicit messages to each other.

 

~Written by Jill Mullins on September 22, 2017

Department of Education and Sexual Assault/Harassment

On September 22, 2017, the Department of Education issued new guidance on Title IX. Given that the the person who received the majority of electoral college votes bragged about sexual assault, it is no surprise that the guidance appears to weaken interpretations of Title IX.

Before getting into the Dear Colleague Letter, it’s important to set the stage. When I hear people talk about Title IX and sexual assault in schools there seems to be a considerable amount of confusion about when Title IX comes into play.

Violating Codes of Conduct vs. Violations of Title IX

All schools, colleges, and universities have Codes of Conduct. These Codes of Conduct are supposed to have guidance for how to handle allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. They also include a variety of other components, they may include civility requirements, explicit prohibitions on plagiarism, dress codes, and attendance policies. The University of Washington Code of Conduct is captured in the WACs (Washington Administrative Code, the state version of the CFR). A sampling of the items included are: academic misconduct, acts of dishonest, alcohol violations, computer abuses, creating a public nuisance in neighboring communities, discriminatory harassment, harassment or bullying, hazing, indecent exposure, sexual assault, theft, and unauthorized recording. The Burden of Proof in “brief adjudicative proceedings” as well as “Full hearings” is the “Preponderance of evidence standard.”

As long as a school, university, or college has a (working) system where students can file complaints and those complaints are resolved in a timely fashion, Title IX likely will not come into play with regard to individual allegations of sexual assault.

Title IX is a ban on sex discrimination in education. This means that it is attempting to address the systemic issues. Title IX complaints are lodged when a educational institution appears to be failing to address the issues in a way that can lead to a situation where the educational institution knew or should have known that problems existed. (The ACLU-WA has a great guide that goes into more detail.) In an individual setting, a complaint is often filed when a person tries to pursue the educational institution’s complaint process and there are significant hurdles (the educational institution having unclear or contradictory methods of complaining, not providing a method of appeal, etc.) Title IX can also be implicated if there is a hostile environment that the school should have known existed. For example, if a significant number of complaints of sexual assault occur during football recruiting and the school does nothing to address student safety, the school could be liable for a Title IX violation. This means that in addition to many other claims students could file against the university, they could include an allegation of a Title IX violation, which allows for monetary damages. It also means, though in the history of Title IX it has never happened, that the Federal Government could rescind federal funding to the educational institution (the entire educational institution, not just the area where the discrimination occurred).

Understanding the Reason for the Recent Dear Colleague letter 

Sexual assault has long been an area where there is a misguided belief that people make false reports at substantially higher rates than other crimes and therefor anyone who claims a sexual assault happened must be looked at suspiciously. In addition, those accused of sexual assault (especially privileged white young men) should be given extra leniency so as to protect the harm that could befall them from a proper punishment. Proponents with this view point believe that anything involving sexual assault allegations should have to reach the highest burden of proof, the standard used in a criminal trial (beyond a reasonable doubt or as it’s labeled in a civil setting “clear and convincing”) even when not there is no deprivation of life or liberty at stake.

The new Q&A issued in connection with the Dear Colleague Letter rescinding the 2011 Dear Colleague letter is a nod towards heading in the direction of the heightened standard because it revokes the preponderance standard articulated in the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter.

Relevant Comparison of the Dear Colleague Letters 

The 2011 letter stated (Note the Department of Education appears to have removed it from the general summary, but it can be found on the archived site :

Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.26 OCR also uses a preponderance of the evidence standard when it resolves complaints against recipients. For instance, OCR’s Case Processing Manual requires that a noncompliance determination be supported by the preponderance of the evidence when resolving allegations of discrimination under all the statutes enforced by OCR, including Title IX.27 OCR also uses a preponderance of the evidence standard in its fund termination administrative hearings.28 Thus, in order for a school’s grievance procedures to be consistent with Title IX standards, the school must use a preponderance of the evidence standard (i.e., it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred). The “clear and convincing” standard (i.e., it is highly probable or reasonably certain that the sexual harassment or violence occurred), currently used by some schools, is a higher standard of proof. Grievance procedures that use this higher standard are inconsistent with the standard of proof established for violations of the civil rights laws, and are thus not equitable under Title IX. Therefore, preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard for investigating allegations of sexual harassment or violence.

(emphasis added)
Footnotes referenced:

26 See, e.g., Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90, 99 (2003) (noting that under the “conventional rule of civil litigation,” the preponderance of the evidence standard generally applies in cases under Title VII); Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 252-55 (1989) (approving preponderance standard in Title VII sex discrimination case) (plurality opinion); id. at 260 (White, J., concurring in the judgment); id. at 261 (O’Connor, J., concurring in the judgment). The 2001 Guidance noted (on page vi) that “[w]hile Gebser and Davis made clear that Title VII agency principles do not apply in determining liability for money damages under Title IX, the Davis Court also indicated, through its specific references to Title VII caselaw, that Title VII remains relevant in determining what constitutes hostile environment sexual harassment under Title IX.” See also Jennings v. Univ. of N.C., 482 F.3d 686, 695 (4th Cir. 2007) (“We look to case law interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for guidance in evaluating a claim brought under Title IX.”).

 

27 OCR’s Case Processing Manual is available on the Department’s Web site, at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/ocrcpm.html.

 

28 The Title IX regulations adopt the procedural provisions applicable to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See 34 C.F.R. § 106.71 (“The procedural provisions applicable to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are hereby adopted and incorporated herein by reference.”). The Title VI regulations apply the Administrative Procedure Act to administrative hearings required prior to termination of Federal financial assistance and require that termination decisions be “supported by and in accordance with the reliable, probative and substantial evidence.” 5 U.S.C. § 556(d). The Supreme Court has interpreted “reliable, probative and substantial evidence” as a direction to use the preponderance standard. See Steadman v. SEC, 450 U.S. 91, 98-102 (1981).

The new regulations state:

The findings of fact and conclusions should be reached by applying either a preponderance of the evidence standard or a clear and convincing evidence standard.19

(Emphasis added).

Referenced footnote:

19 The standard of evidence for evaluating a claim of sexual misconduct should be consistent with the standard the school applies in other student misconduct cases. In a recent decision, a court concluded that a school denied “basic fairness” to a responding party by, among other things, applying a lower standard of evidence only in cases of alleged sexual misconduct. Doe v. Brandeis Univ., 177 F. Supp. 3d 561, 607 (D. Mass. 2016) (“[T]he lowering of the standard appears to have been a deliberate choice by the university to make cases of sexual misconduct easier to prove—and thus more difficult to defend, both for guilty and innocent students alike. It retained the higher standard for virtually all other forms of student misconduct. The lower standard may thus be seen, in context, as part of an effort to tilt the playing field against accused students, which is particularly troublesome in light of the elimination of other basic rights of the accused.”). When a school applies special procedures in sexual misconduct cases, it suggests a discriminatory purpose and should be avoided. A postsecondary institution’s annual security report must describe the standard of evidence that will be used during any institutional disciplinary proceeding arising from an allegation of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. 34 C.F.R. § 668.46(k)(1)(ii).

Impact of the Dear Colleague letter

This particular Dear Colleague letter will likely have minimal impact. It doesn’t require schools to use a clear and convincing standard. In fact, it requires a consistent standard and educational institutions are unlikely to want to have a “clear and convincing” standard for all the discipline proceedings that come before them.

The real damage with the change in administration of the Department of Education is a regular problem that occurs are the shift of values when there is a Republican president. The President appoints people and outlines priorities that shift away from enforcement of sex discrimination. They do not diligently pursue Title IX complaints, at least not to the same extent as those appointed by Democratic presidents. If they take a Title IX complaint, they are far more likely to pursue a complaint that alleges the educational institution’s practices were unfair to the accused than the vastly greater number of complaints of the unresponsiveness of educational institutions towards targeted students. Knowing that the Office of Civil Rights is likely not going to pursue Title IX complaints often means people are less willing to file them (this is also a trend with the EEOC and sex discrimination claims in the workforce).

It seems odd that ensuring that students are not sexually assaulted is a partisan issue, but for some inexplicable reason Republican administrations actively work to weaken protections against sexual assault, sexual harassment and efforts to overcome sex discrimination as this recent Dear Colleague Letter demonstrates.

More concerning than this particular Dear Colleague letter, which allows educational institutions to use a clear and convincing standard if that’s the standard for all other violations of their codes of conduct, is that the Department of Education is exploring changing the regulations. Nevertheless, the regulations cannot rescind the law, nor can regulations overturn court decisions. While federal enforcement can be weakened administratively and that can have a big impact, Title IX is not going anywhere any time soon.

~Written by Jill Mullins on September 23, 2017

Public Records Act – A Huge Consideration for Schools

This morning, I came across a post from an attorney friend at the Attorney General’s Office on my Facebook feed that read:

That collective groan you just heard from every state employee was from a Public Records Act request for every email from all state agencies. Someone just commandeered thousands (tens/hundreds of thousands?) of hours of public employees’ time at no cost to themselves. ‪#‎DoomsdayRequest‬

(The news story he was referencing is available here). Several government attorneys chimed in with their own issues with the Washington Public Records Act (PRA), reflecting the frustration shared by agencies, school districts, and attorneys representing public entities statewide. Every public attorney I’ve spoken to agrees that transparency is critical to our democratic society, but too many of us have seen firsthand the dysfunctional side of the PRA and watched our already under-funded public clients struggle to comply with the far-reaching and high-stakes PRA, certainly one of the most aggressive pieces of transparency legislation in the country.

Developing systems to properly respond to a PRA request is perhaps the clearest embodiment of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It is absolutely critical that school districts and new charter schools have their systems and protocols clearly established to avoid the massive time and resource pitfalls inherent to the PRA.

Cedar Law listed as a “referred vendor” for Washington charter schools

The Washington State Charter Schools Association has compiled a directory to help connect member schools to local, statewide, and national vendors across a variety of categories. The vendor directory also indicates which vendors have been referred by other schools and organizations. Cedar Law is proud to be a “referred vendor” providing legal services for Washington charter schools.