Iowa Prosecutor Who Threatened to Treat Girl’s Selfies As Child Porn Backs Down

Yesterday the ACLU of Iowa announced that Marion County Attorney Ed Bull, who last year threatened to prosecute a teenager for producing child pornography by using her phone to take pictures of herself in her underwear, has promised not to bring charges. In exchange, the ACLU has withdrawn the lawsuit it filed on behalf of the girl's parents in November.

Although Bull lost the fight he picked with a 14-year-old girl, the CBS station in Des Moines reports, he has no regrets:

Bull was unrepentant...

"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."

If Bull truly believes that threatening a girl with prison and lifelong registration as a sex offender over a couple of risqué selfies has anything to do with justice, he is demonstrably unqualified for his job. According to the ACLU lawsuit, Bull told the girl she could avoid prosecution only if she participated in "a pretrial diversion program wherein she must discuss why her conduct was wrong, sign a statement of admission as to her alleged conduct, listen to how she could potentially have to register as a sex offender for life, and give up her laptop and cell phone for an unspecified period of time."

The TV station says Bull was trying to teach the girl an important lesson about "the life-altering consequences that could arise from being labeled as a sex offender." Since he was the one threatening to label her as a sex offender, this exercise was rather like burning down a kid's house to teach him the danger of playing with matches. If Bull had stayed out of what should have been a family matter, there would have been no need for the girl to worry that an adolescent indiscretion might ruin her life.

"As a policy matter," says Rita Bettis, the ACLU of Iowa's legal director, "it's bewildering that a county attorney would threaten to put a child in jail or prison or place her on the sex offender registry for taking a picture of herself." The case, which Robby Soave covered here last fall, is also bewildering as a legal matter, since the pictures at issue did not qualify as child pornography under Iowa law.

According to the lawsuit, one photo showed the girl "from the waist up, hair entirely covering her breasts and dressed in boy shorts." The other picture showed her "standing upright, clad in the same boy shorts and wearing a sports bra." The statute defining "sexual exploitation of a minor," the charge that Bull threatened to bring, requires "a prohibited sexual act," which includes prurient nudity only when it involves exposure of breasts, genitals, or buttocks.

In other words, this was not a case where a prudish prosecutor was applying the letter of the law too strictly. It was a case where a prudish prosecutor was twisting the law to give himself license to meddle in matters that were none of his business. Since the photos were perfectly legal, Bull's bullying was also a First Amendment violation.

Even if the pictures qualified as child pornography in Iowa, it defies logic to say a teenager can be guilty of sexually exploiting herself. That mind-boggling notion illustrates the unjust, irrational, and unconstitutional consequences of the pedophilia panic that prevents prosecutors like Bull and the legislators who empower them from thinking straight.