New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it illegal to photograph anyone else’s children without parental consent. The bill was created in response to complaints from Ringwood NJ residents that a 63 year old man had been photographing young girls at the town swimming pool. When the man was questioned by police, he explained that he was taking pictures of the girls, aged 8 to 10, because he found them “sexy”.
It’s hard not to reflexively look for a way to prevent creeps like this from doing creepy things like that. But is a law against all pictures of other people’s children the solution? Many say it definitely is not—mostly because the law is worded so broadly that it would make many of the freedoms we take for granted impossible. The bill aims to ban photos or videos taken when “a reasonable parent or guardian would not expect his child to be the subject of such reproduction.” You don’t have to be a lawyer to see how murky that language is.
We live in a populated society with increasingly easy access to cameras. With this law in place, would parents end up breaking the law just trying to document their own kids’ lives? For example, says Ed Barocas, the legal director of the NJ chapter of the ACLU: “If you take a picture of your child at the Jersey Shore building a sand castle, and there were other children in the background, would that violate the law?” Would parents of children in the same class or sports team have to sign waivers to allow events to be photographed? And what about children photographing each other?
Clearly, we all want to protect our children from pedophiles. Taking a child’s picture because you find the child sexually attractive is morally and culturally unacceptable. But making it legally unacceptable by applying a blanket law has major implications. The Ringwood poolside prowler was generous enough to admit his sexualized intent. But without a clear confession, how would we determine which photographs are acceptable and which aren’t? The interpretation of these things is highly subjective, and the stories about misinterpretation can be tragic in themselves. Parents have lost years with their children when casual snapshots have been interpreted as child pornography. When the photographer is a stranger, the stakes are obviously much different. But I think we should be mindful of what we stand to lose here, as well as what we are trying to protect.