Free Speech Upends School Sexting Charges

     FORT WORTH (CN) - Texas prosecutors have dropped criminal charges accusing a junior high school teacher of "sexting" with a minor student, citing a ruling that deemed such communication protected free speech.
     Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon dropped charges of improper relationship between an educator and minor against Sean Arlis Williams, 31, of Fort Worth.
     Williams was originally charged in January with online solicitation of a minor after allegedly engaging in hundreds of sexually explicit texts with a 13-year-old student at Baxter Junior High in the Everman Independent School District, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
     According to an arrest warrant affidavit, the student told police Williams had asked her to not tell anyone about their conversations.
     The messages discussed "if either of them walked around naked in their homes, keeping the relationship secret until the victim graduates, dreams that each of them had about each other, virginity and showing restraint while they are in the classroom," the affidavit stated. Williams was not accused of trying to arrange sex with the minor.
     Williams' arrest nevertheless came three months after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that the 2005 law criminalizing such online conversations with minors is unconstitutionally overbroad and infringes on free speech.
     In that case, the state's highest criminal appeals court dismissed a pending indictment against John Christopher Lo, of Harris County. He was charged with a third-degree felony for communicating in a sexually explicit manner with a person he believed to be a minor with an intent to arouse or gratify his sexual desire.
     The court attributed the incorrect handling of Lo's case to the wrong standard of review regarding the constitutional challenges.
     "Applying the constitutionally required presumption that 'content-based regulations [of speech] are presumptively invalid' and subject to strict scrutiny, we conclude that Section 33.021(b) of the Texas Penal Code is overbroad because it prohibits a wide array of constitutionally protected speech and is not narrowly drawn to achieve only the legitimate objective of protecting children from sexual abuse," Judge Cathy Cochran wrote for the panel. "A man's thoughts are his own; he may sit in his armchair and think salacious thoughts, murderous thoughts, discriminatory thoughts, whatever thoughts he chooses, free from the 'thought police.' It is only when the man gets out of his armchair and acts upon his thoughts that the law may intervene."
     Melody McDonald, a spokeswoman for the DA's office, said Tuesday that her office was obligated to dismiss the case against Williams because of the ruling.
     The ruling "has certainly caused us to reexamine a handful of cases and, where appropriate, seek to reindict them under Texas Penal Code 15.031 - online solicitation of a minor," she said. "In this particular case, however, the facts didn't fit that statute and that wasn't an option. We'll have to see how cases that have already been disposed shake out in the appellate process."