* U.S. judge rules against prosecutor in "sexting" case
* ACLU applauds decision
* Ruling may spur abuse of legal system - prosecutor
By Jon Hurdle
PHILADELPHIA, March 30 A U.S. judge on Monday
barred a Pennsylvania prosecutor from filing child pornography
charges against three teenage girls caught with sexually
suggestive pictures of themselves on their cell phones.
U.S. District Judge James Munley said he was issuing a
restraining order on Wyoming County District Attorney George
Skumanick because his proposed action would violate freedom of
speech and parental rights.
The ruling came after the American Civil Liberties Union
sued Skumanick on behalf of the girls and their families.
"The court agrees with the plaintiffs that the public
interest would be served by issuing a TRO (temporary
restraining order) in this matter as the public interest is on
the side of protecting constitutional rights," the judge said.
The case has attracted national attention and revolves
around the growing practice among teens of "sexting," a play on
the term texting, in which nude or semi-nude photos are sent on
cell phones or posted on the Internet.
The pictures, found last fall by officials of
Pennsylvania's Tunkhannock School District, showed two of the
girls wearing bras, and another standing topless with a wrapped
towel around her waist. No sexual activity was displayed.
Other unidentified people distributed the pictures.
Last month Skumanick told the girls and 17 other students
that he would charge them with possessing or distributing child
pornography, which is a felony, unless they agreed to probation
and participated in a "re-education" program.
All but three agreed to his demands, setting the stage for
Witold Walczack, legal director of the ACLU of
Pennsylvania, welcomed the legal decision.
"This country needs to have a discussion about whether
prosecuting minors as child pornographers for merely being
impulsive and naive is the appropriate way to address the
serious consequences that can result from sexting," he said.
But Skumanick said it could encourage potential defendants
to use the federal court system to evade state charges.
"My big fear is setting the precedent that would allow
criminals in the state system seeking protecting in the federal
system." Skumanick said. When asked if he would appeal, he said
was studying the opinion.
A national survey last fall found 20 percent of teenagers
said they have sent or posted online nude or semi-nude pictures
of themselves, and 39 percent said they have sent or posted
sexually suggestive messages, according to the National
Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
(Editing by Paul Simao)