Do Sexting Prosecutions Violate Teenagers' Constitutional Rights?

42 Pages Posted: 7 Nov 2010 Last revised: 26 Oct 2012

See all articles by JoAnne Sweeny

JoAnne Sweeny

University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law

Date Written: November 6, 2010


The media has recently been highlighting a rash of prosecutions of teenagers who engage in “sexting” – sending nude or sexually explicit images of themselves or their peers – under child pornography laws. These prosecutions have led to mass criticism for threatening teens with long prison terms and registering as sex offenders for activities that are perceived to be relatively innocent. Many, if not most, of these sexting teens are legally permitted to engage in sexual activities through their states’ statutory rape laws, which leads to an absurd situation where teens are permitted to engage in sex but not photograph it. This mismatch between different ages of consent leaves sexting prosecutions open to a myriad of constitutional challenges. This article examines the four possible constitutional challenges to sexting prosecutions: freedom of expression, equal protection, right to privacy, and due process. Most of these challenges have already been brought with mixed success. Although the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the issue, as this article shows, teens are likely to succeed on at least some of these claims. For that reason, this article concludes that states should be proactive and create sexting legislation that resolves the conflict between their statutory rape and child pornography laws. These laws should also address non-consensual forwarding of sexually explicit messages.

Keywords: Child Pornography, Sexting, Freedom of Expression, Right to Privacy, Due Process, Equal Protection

Suggested Citation

Sweeny, JoAnne, Do Sexting Prosecutions Violate Teenagers' Constitutional Rights? (November 6, 2010). San Diego Law Review, Vol. 48, p. 951, 2011; University of Louisville School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 2012-11. Available at SSRN:

JoAnne Sweeny (Contact Author)

University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law ( email )

Wilson W. Wyatt Hall
Louisville, KY 40292
United States

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