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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, February 19, 2010

Prudish bully vs. ACLU - government official challenged in US Court of Appeals

H/T George Felis.

This from the ACLU's Blog of Rights.

On January 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit heard arguments in Miller, et al. v. Skumanick, a child pornography case that, oddly, involves no child pornography. The case goes back to 2006, when two girls aged 12 were photographed by another friend on her digital camera. The two girls were depicted from the waist up, wearing bras. In a separate situation, our third client was photographed as she emerged from the shower, with a towel wrapped around her waist and the upper body exposed. Neither of the photos depicted genitalia or any sexual activity or context. In 2008 the girls' school district learned that these and other photos were circulating, confiscated several students' cell phones, and turned the photos in question over to the Wyoming County district attorney, George Skumanick, Jr.

Skumanick sent a letter to the girls and their parents, offering an ultimatum. They could attend a five-week re-education program of his own design, which included topics like "what it means to be a girl in today's society" and "non-traditional societal and job roles." They would also be placed on probation, subjected to random drug testing, and required to write essays explaining how their actions were wrong. If the girls refused the program, the letter explained, the girls would be charged with felony child pornography, a charge that carries a possible 10-year prison sentence.

The girls are now about 16. Obviously, a conviction for child pornography - or even the process of a trial - could easily destroy a teenage girl's life prospects. It boggles the mind that any responsible public official would make such a threat to very vulnerable young people; but of course, bullies are always with us. For someone prepared to abuse his authority, this is a very powerful way to coerce others to obey his will. Interestingly, none of the children known to have actually distributed the photos were the subject of any action by the authorities - only the girls actually appearing in the photos. In particular, there is no reeducation program proposed for the boys involved in distributing them.

Most of the girls surrendered to the overwhelming power of the bully: they gave in and attended the aptly-named Skumanick's reeducation program - with what effect is not apparent. But three families challenged him and contacted the ACLU to defend their daughters in court. In 2009, the ACLU was successful in obtaining an interim order restraining the DA's office from proceeding to prosecute the three girls concerned. Whether the DA's office will be able to proceed further is now up to the Court of Appeals.

Blog of Rights observes:

It is certainly important, in this era of Facebook and Twitter and text messaging, that children learn the consequences of sharing digital photographs of themselves, but as ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Witold Walczak puts it, "prosecutors should not be using heavy artillery like child-pornography charges to teach that lesson."

Edit: On reflection, I'm not sure that the word "prudish" is correct in this context, since the photos don't sound especially sexual (much as they might appear provocative and "naughty" to a bunch of 12-y.o.'s!). It's not that he's seeing something clearly sexual and finding it offensive, although the word may still be appropriate as there does seem to be an underlying "shame about the body" thing going on. But what I mainly see here is a pathological lack of any sense of nuance or proportion, combined with an unscrupulous, destructive determination to get his way.


Wes said...

These types of cases always infuriate me. Child pornography laws are there to protect children from being exploited by adults. The closest thing to exploitation by adults in this case is the way that the school is treating the girls.

Children taking pictures of themselves is not something the government needs to get involved in at all. This is a matter for the families to deal with.

Ophelia Benson said...

Yikes. The whole post makes it even clearer how crazy it is - in fact how Talibanish it is - punish the whorey females and say the boys are just doing what boys do.

Interestingly, none of the classmates who distributed the photos received letters from Skumanick. Only the girls who appeared in the photos were threatened with child porn charges. If the DA did in fact regard these photos as pornographic, why not file distribution charges against the boys? A clue may be found in their argument before the 3rd Circuit. In narrating the case, their attorney explained how, after the girls were photographed, "high school boys did as high school boys will do, and traded the photos among themselves."


Anonymous said...

Hm hm.. that's interessting but to be honest i have a hard time determining it... wonder what others have to say..

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!