DES MOINES, Iowa — An Iowa county attorney has threatened to brand a teen a “sex offender” because she sent a friend photos of herself scantily clad, the girl’s family claims in federal court.
The photos at the heart of the Sept. 28 lawsuit depict a 14-year-old girl, named only as Nancy Doe in the lawsuit, in her underwear. In one photo, she wears a sports bra, and in the other she is topless with her long hair covering her breasts. She sent the photos to a male classmate via Snapchat and then deleted them, according to the lawsuit.
But the photos emerged again last spring when two male students were caught printing them off using a school printer, along with other photos of nude or partially nude male and female classmates, the 25-page complaint states.
The Knoxville School District discovered that male students had been trading, collecting and printing the photos, according to the lawsuit.
The school district turned the photographs over to the Knoxville Police Department before Nancy’s parents, identified as plaintiffs “John and Jane Doe,” saw them.
When investigators did share the photos, the girl’s parents wondered “what the fuss was about,” as the images were not sexually explicit and did not portray nudity.
“Sexting,” or the transmission of sexually explicit text or photos digitally, is a common phenomenon among teens. A 2014 study from Drexel University cited in the lawsuit found that about half of all college students surveyed admitted that they had sent sexually charged photographs to others when they were minors.
Nancy’s parents noted that their daughters’ photos “were less ‘racy’ than photographs they see in fashion magazines and on television every day.”
Investigators reassured Nancy’s parents that they “did not have anything to worry about,” according to the complaint.
But a couple months after the photos were discovered, Marion County Attorney Ed Bull led a meeting for students who were involved in the school’s “sexting” crisis, along with their parents, plaintiffs say.
Although Nancy and her parents were unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict, at that meeting Bull allegedly informed the students present that “they could all be charged with child pornography charges and/or sexual exploitation of a minor charges … [which] would require them to register as a sex offender for life.”
The plaintiffs claim they also heard reports that at the meeting Bull “engaged in ‘slut shaming’ by informing the female students present that young ladies did not send such explicit photos to boys.”
To escape the criminal charges, the students would have to participate in a “diversion program” that required them to engage in community service, complete a class on the dangers and consequences of “sexting,” give up their laptops and cell phones for an unspecified period of time, and submit a written confession about their conduct to juvenile court services, plaintiffs claim.
In a private meeting with juvenile court services, the Does were also asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire “that delved into the intimate details of how [they] parented their daughter and how they disciplined her regarding the photographs,” the complaint says.
When the Does refused to fill out the questionnaire or to enroll Nancy in the diversion program, Bull continued to threaten her with criminal prosecution, according to the complaint.
All the other students involved opted to take the diversion program, plaintiffs say.
“Bull’s decision to prosecute the subject of the photographs, Nancy Doe herself, is unprecedented and stands anti-child-pornography laws on their head,” Nancy’s parents argue. “Anti-child-pornography laws are intended to protect the children shown in the photos and videos, and plaintiffs’ counsel has found no published Iowa or federal court decision sustaining such a prosecution against minors shown in such pictures.”
“Nancy Doe is, if anything, the victim in this case,” the complaint continues. “Someone else — not her — disseminated the photos without her permission to a large group of people.”
Nancy’s parents also object to the fact that Bull is attempting to make Nancy “admit in writing to a crime that does not exist.”
In addition, the Does are claiming Bull’s ultimatum interferes with their right to discipline their daughter as they see fit and also chills their daughter’s free speech.
The Does are requesting that the judge bar Bull from pressing criminal charges against Nancy.
Ed Bull directed all inquiries to his attorney, Robert Livingston with Stuart Tinley Law Firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa, who did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Plaintiffs are represented by Glen Downey of The Law Offices of Glen Downey, who also did not respond to email or phone requests for comment.
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