Marion County Attorney Ed Bull declines to turn a 14-year-old girl into a sex offender for “sexting”
Confronting a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Marion County Attorney Ed Bull will not file criminal charges against a 14-year-old girl for “sexting.” Photos of the girl were acquired and printed by male students at her high school.
Last year, the Iowa prosecutor launched an investigation of the high school student, Nancy Doe, for sending two Snapchat photos to an unnamed boy. As the ACLU pointed out in its lawsuit, the minor wasn’t naked in either photo; she was wearing underwear in one and the top half of her body was shielded by her hair in another. The pictures were discovered by staff at Knoxville High School, who caught two students printing explicit photos of their classmates, including Doe’s. The school contacted local police, and Doe was one of at least 30 students targeted by Bull and threatened with criminal charges.
Bull considered prosecuting Doe and her peers for child pornography and sexual exploitation of a minor, which if successful would result in them becoming registered youth sex offenders. In lieu of a criminal prosecution, the students were given the opportunity to participate in a pre-trial diversion program, forfeit their computer and phone use, and admit to wrongdoing. Instead, Doe’s parents sued the county attorney last September.
“Unless the photographs were produced by abusing or coercing Nancy, which they were not, or they show Nancy engaged in sexual activity or lasciviously displaying her genitals, and again they do not, the photos are expression protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Doe’s attorneys wrote in their lawsuit. In November 2016, the ACLU took on the family’s case and filed an injunction in federal court, asking that a judge block any charges filed by Bull.
“Rather than take every juvenile to court I looked for a solution that would help them learn from their mistakes and hopefully prevent their behavior from being repeated, while allowing them to avoid having a criminal or juvenile conviction or even a charge on their record,” the county attorney said in response to the lawsuit.
Bull has since done an about-face. Last Thursday, the ACLU revealed that Doe is no longer facing criminal charges. The county plans to shell out $40,000 to cover the organization’s legal expenses. And yet Bull remains steadfast that he made the right decision. “As county attorney, it is my job to pursue justice. Nothing can or will change that,” he said. “I will put the ACLU’s dismissal papers in my file and go right back to work serving my community.”
As the Des Moines Register noted, prosecutors are considering various types of criminal charges for “sexting.” According to Futures Without Violence, an organization dedicated to ending violence against women and children, sharing nude or semi-nude photos can constitute sexual harassment and cyberbullying. But criminal prosecutions of teenagers who have shared photos of themselves to other consenting teens have resulted in criminal convictions, turned them into registered sex offenders for life, and resulted in girls’ slut-shaming.
Regardless of why Bull ultimately declined to charge Nancy Doe, the decision shows that prosecutors have the power to treat youth like youth and keep them out of the criminal and juvenile justice systems. One arrest and one court appearance drastically increases the likelihood that a juvenile will drop out of school. The sex offender label also comes with devastating obstacles down the line, restricting housing, employment, and education prospects. Persuaded or not by Doe’s pushback in court, Bull ultimately prevented her from suffering this fate.