Federal judge blocks charges in ‘sexting’ case

A federal judge on March 30 temporarily blocked a prosecutor from filing child pornography charges against three northeastern Pennsylvania teenagers who appeared in racy photos that turned up on classmates’ cell phones.

The case is one of the first to address how prosecutors should handle the growing phenomenon of "sexting," in which teens send each other sexually suggestive photos of themselves or others, usually via cell phone. The nationwide problem has confounded parents, school administrators, and law-enforcement officials.

Prosecutors in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin, have tried to put a stop to it by charging teens who send and receive the pictures. But many parents and other observers say filing child pornography charges should be reserved for real sex offenders, not teenagers who might have used poor judgment but meant nothing malicious. (See "Porn charges for sexting stir debate.")

In the Pennsylvania case, U.S. District Judge James Munley ruled against Wyoming County District Attorney George Skumanick Jr., who has threatened to pursue felony charges against the girls unless they agree to participate in a five-week after-school program.

One picture showed two of the girls in their bras. The second photo showed another girl just out of the shower and topless, with a towel wrapped around her waist.

"We are grateful the judge recognized that prosecuting our clients for non-sexually explicit photographs raises serious constitutional questions," Witold Walczack, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

"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" when teens send sexually suggestive photos of themselves and others to one another, he said.

Skumanick, who has said he can prosecute the teens as "accomplices" in the production of child pornography, said he would consider an appeal.

The ruling "sets a dangerous precedent by allowing people to commit crimes and then seek refuge from state arrest in the federal courts," he said.

The photos surfaced in October, when officials at Tunkhannock Area High School confiscated five cell phones and found that boys had been trading photos of scantily clad, semi-nude, or nude teenage girls. The students with the cell phones ranged in age from 11 to 17.

Skumanick met with about 20 students and their parents last month and offered them a deal in which the youths wouldn’t be prosecuted if they took a class on sexual harassment, sexual violence, and gender roles. Seventeen of the students accepted the offer, but three balked and sued Skumanick last week.

The suit, filed by the ACLU, said the teens didn’t consent to having the picture distributed and that the images are not pornographic. The ACLU said Skumanick’s threat to prosecute is "retaliation" for the students’ refusal to participate in the class.

Munley’s decision to grant the teens a temporary restraining order prevents Skumanick from filing charges while the lawsuit proceeds.

The girls "make a reasonable argument that the images presented to the court do not appear to qualify in any way as depictions of prohibited sexual acts. Even if they were such depictions, the plaintiffs’ argument that [they] were not involved in disseminating the images is also a reasonable one," Munley wrote.

Under Pennsylvania’s child pornography law, it’s a felony to possess or disseminate photos of a minor engaged in sexual activity, "lewd exhibition of the genitals," or nudity that is meant to titillate.

The judge said he "offers no final conclusion on the merits of plaintiffs’ position" and scheduled a hearing on the case for June 2.


U.S. District Court for the Middle of Pennsylvania

American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania


AV technology in focus at InfoComm 2009

With a focus on the power of audio-visual technology, InfoComm 2009 gets underway on June 14 in Orlando, Fla.  More than 30,000 attendees from around the world, and more than 850 exhibitors, are expected.

Pavilions throughout the show floor include focuses on audio, digital signage, and lighting and staging.

"Attending InfoComm’s tradeshow provides a tremendous return on an attendee’s investment of both time and money," said Randal A. Lemke, Ph.D., executive director of InfoComm International.  "It is the only place to see a comprehensive array of conferencing, professional audio, digital signage, display, lighting, control system and signal distribution technology solutions.  Attendees can also take advantage of education and training from leading experts and manufacturers while they are at the Show."

More than 300 education sessions will offer the training that AV professionals rely on to stay current with a constantly changing industry.  More than 8,000 technology managers responsible for purchasing products are also anticipated. 

Special exhibits and events include audio demonstration rooms, an HD Conferencing and Telepresence Showcase, and a digital signage application showcase.

"The question should not be whether you can afford to attend InfoComm, but rather, can you afford to miss it?" said Lemke.

The conference is supported by Bosch Communications Systems, Christie Digital, Crestron Electronics, Extron Electronics, Middle Atlantic Products, Inc., Polycom, and Tandberg.


InfoComm 2009


Breach sends water onto school campus in Fargo

The slowly receding Red River breached a dike on Fargo’s north side early Sunday, sending water flowing into buildings at a school campus before it could be contained, city and school officials said.

The extent of the damage at Oak Grove Lutheran School wasn’t immediately known. The surrounding neighborhood was not evacuated, but residents in some areas were told to plug their sewers and monitor basements.

Principal Morgan Forness said city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Guard unsuccessfully tried to contain the water to one building after a permanent flood wall panel at the school buckled around 1:30 a.m.

"They made a gallant effort … but the power of the river is just too much," he told KFGO radio. "They gave it everything they had, and it just–we couldn’t contain it. It came center of campus, and now, it’s inundating all of the buildings."

The city said the flooding was caused by erosion and began when water came up through the floor of one building and infiltrated the rest of campus.

"I think there’s a little bit of divine intervention here–in the sense that we built a secondary dike to help protect the school, and that’s gonna probably end up helping to protect the neighborhood," school President Bruce Messelt told KFGO.

After cresting around midnight Friday at 40.82 feet, the Red River had dropped to 40.25 feet by early Sunday–still more than 22 feet above flood stage. Fargo fears that more water could burst past the levees and submerge parts of the city.

The river may fluctuate up to a foot and remain at dangerous levels for a week, meaning people will have to endure an agonizing several days before they reach the point they can relax.

The city was to resume sandbagging Sunday morning and was requesting more volunteers. Many were expected to turn out after church services that are staples of life on Sunday mornings in Fargo, a heavily Lutheran town of more than 90,000.

"I just hope that everybody doesn’t let up. We can’t let our guard down," said Al Erickson, a 47-year-old banker whose two-story home is across the street from a golf course that is now a giant water hazard. "The city as a whole will be OK, but there may be neighborhoods that still may have some trouble."

Forecasters say the river is retreating because cold temperatures have been freezing water that normally would be flowing into the river. By the time that water thaws, the biggest flooding threat should have passed, Hudson said.

Officials in charge of the flood-response effort deployed high-tech Predator drone aircraft, called up more National Guard troops and brought in hundreds of bags that each hold a ton of sand and could be dropped by helicopter into breaks in the levees.

The National Guard has been dispatching inspection teams to the levees, joining a cadre of volunteers who are being asked to do the same. The task is monumental, with more than 35 miles of levees around Fargo.

"I don’t think there’s an inch of riverfront on the Fargo side that doesn’t have some kind of levee," said city engineer Mark Bittner. "We encourage neighborhoods to get together and have their own dike patrols and assist us."

Bruce Boelter walked the entire length of a roughly mile-long stretch of sandbag dike to eyeball the manmade wall separating his subdivision and the Red River. Neighbor Tony Guck joined him halfway. Each felt a special stake in the dike they helped build.

"If we don’t protect this, it’s gonna get us. It’s basically for our own security," said Guck, 42. "I’m just planning on coming out every six hours and walking it."

Water has forced hundreds of residents in the Fargo area from their homes and submerged basements and yards in an untold number of houses along the river.
Emergency crews in boats had to rescue about 150 people from their homes in neighboring communities in Minnesota, while about 20 percent of households in Moorhead have been urged to leave.

The flooding was brought on by heavier-than-average winter snows, spring rains and a rapid thaw of the snowpack that sent the Red River to record-high levels in Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city.

A winter storm was predicted to hit North Dakota early next week, although the snow isn’t expected to affect the flooding in Fargo. Still, wind from the storm could cause 2-foot waves that could send some water over the top of dikes, said Dave Kellenbenz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

"That’s something we’re going to have to watch closely as we move into next week," he said.

The variation in flood forecasts was a roller coaster throughout the week for Fargo, with the projection edging upward twice before being lowered Saturday. Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker opened a briefing earlier in the day by apologizing for criticizing the weather service.

Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service, said the predictions are complex. They come from round-the-clock work by hundreds of scientists, engineers and other experts. Some of those people brave the river for measurements of volume, flow and temperatures. They also use computer models for mathematical and statistical analyses.

But even with improved forecasting methods, the river’s record levels and the volatile temperatures don’t allow anyone to be certain, and the weather service continued to hedge its prediction Saturday.

The main focus for the Fargo area will be on whether the long line of levees will be able to hold up against the floodwaters–regardless of their level. Engineers say that anytime water is pressed up against a levee for a considerable period of time, there is a risk of catastrophic flooding.

"The saturation usually becomes the enemy of a levee over time," Jud Kneuvean, chief of emergency management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kansas City. "It can cause the embankment to be less stable and slide."

Word of the river’s possible retreat couldn’t come at a better time for 91-year-old Jim Sundahl, whose Moorhead yard has already been swallowed up by floodwaters. He has been waging a furious battle to keep the waters from his home, where he was born.

"I’m happy about it, I’ll tell you that," Sundahl said. "But it won’t do us any good for four or five days."


Red River water levels


Interactive web feature helps students learn about scientific inquiry

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has launched ASK IT!, a moderated forum and free online resource designed to model the scientific process. Students are invited to identify and formulate a scientific question, expand upon an existing question, or pose possible answers to questions posted on the forum. Students also can vote for the questions they would like to see answered by an expert in the field, and scientists from around the country will post responses to selected student inquiries. ASK IT! creates an online community that encourages logical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and inquiry-based learning, NAS said. It is the newest interactive feature on the organization’s iWASwondering.org web site, a project developed to encourage young people—especially girls—to pursue an interest in science. http://www.iwaswondering.org


Lawmaker crafting bill to set penalty for teens’ ‘sexting’

As ever-more-aggressive high school flirting clashes with evolving technology, Ohio lawmakers are searching for the appropriate way to deal with the growing trend of teenagers transmitting nude pictures of themselves via electronic devices, reports the Columbus Dispatch. One in five teens has sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves, known as "sexting," according to a recent study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Pictures are often transmitted via cell phones, eMail messages, or web postings, and they can spread quickly. The issue has caught the attention of at least one Ohio lawmaker who is worried that teens could run into harsh criminal penalties for sending or receiving such pictures. State Rep. Ron Maag, R-Lebanon, said he will soon introduce a bill making the creation, exchange, and possession of nude materials between minors a first-degree misdemeanor. "Local prosecutors have brought to my attention that under current Ohio law these teens could be charged with a felony and classified as sex offenders," Maag said. "There is concern that this may not be appropriate for these minors."

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North Carolina students use online classes to save money

Developed by former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley in 2007 and funded by the General Assembly, a program called Learn and Earn Online enables high school students across the state to register for online college courses free of charge through the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community College System, reports the Salisbury Post. More than 300 courses in language, music, politics, sociology, and other subjects are available. In most cases, students earn high school and free college credit by taking one online course. Classes are offered during school and after-school hours, and students do not need a home computer to enroll in a course. Dustin Johnson, a senior, is enrolled in a "Masterpieces of Cinema" course. "I took the online course to get out of a regular classroom setting," Dustin said, "but because we do not have that much time to complete each assignment, I have developed time management skills, study skills, and self-discipline that will help me in college." Parents and educators see value in Learn and Earn Online program as well. Bill Harrison, State Board of Education chairman, wants more people to take advantage of the opportunity. "These courses save families money and help students jump-start their college education and future careers," he said…

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