@ Copyright Knoxville Journal-Express, 2016
A lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Iowa federal court on September 28, in which the parents of a 14-year-old girl involved in the spring's "sexting" scandal at Knoxville High School allege that Marion County Attorney Ed Bull violated their daughter's constitutional rights. Bull is being sued in his official capacity only.
The names of the plaintiffs are not included in the petition to protect their identity, as well as the identity of their minor daughter. John and Jane Doe are the names used for the parents, and Nancy Doe for the daughter.
Bull is accused of threatening to prosecute Nancy Doe for sexual exploitation of a minor and/or child pornography for allegedly sharing two digital photographs of herself. In one, she is pictured, from the waist up, with her hair entirely covering her breasts and is dressed in boy shorts. The other is said to show her in the same shorts and wearing an opaque sports bra.
The sexting scandal broke after two male students were discovered using school printers to make paper copies of images that depicted both males and females - many of them enrolled in the district. Photos included nudes, semi-nudes and some nudity with emojis covering their private parts. Among the photos printed were the ones Nancy had taken.
KHS Counselor Carolyn Jones contacted Jane Doe on April 5 to discuss the discovery of some photographs of her daughter. When Jane Doe pressed Jones for clarification, Jones would only describe the photos as "inappropriate." By this time, the matter had been turned over to the Knoxville Police Department and the Does were told they could expect a call.
The Does confronted Nancy about the "inappropriate" photos. Nancy admitted to sending the two photos - that did not include nudity - to a boy at school. The boy had been encouraging her to send such photos, and had sent her photos of himself.
The day she sent the two photos, she was questioned by a friend about them, only to discover that the boy had shared them with other KHS students via group text messages. Nancy told her parents she had since deleted them off of her phone.
Police were interviewing students with parental permission. The Does did not give permission for Nancy to be interviewed. They met with School Resource Officer Kyle Keller and Lt. Aaron Fuller, largely because they wanted to see the photographs in question. Upon seeing the photos, they were "perplexed and asked investigators whether these photographs of their daughter were the photos the school was apparently concerned about."
The answer was "yes." They were also the only two photos of Nancy the police were concerned about. The Does left the KPD unsure of why Nancy was under investigation.
The matter was turned over to Bull, and to Juvenile Court Services. The Does took actions they deemed appropriate before returning the phone to Nancy, including the erasure of many social media applications.
A meeting was called by Bull on May 24, in which approximately 30 students and their parents were requested to attend. The Does did not attend. At this meeting, Bull allegedly told the students they could be charged with child pornography and/or sexual exploitation of a minor, which would cause them to register as a sex offender for life.
The Does met with Juvenile Court Services, but did not believe Nancy's photos were any worse than those featured in fashion magazines. Bull had requested Nancy take part in a pre-trial diversion program or face criminal charges and the Does were given a deadline of June 2 to make a decision.
John and Jane Doe contacted attorney Matthew Lindholm on June 1. Lindholm reportedly spoke with Bull and mentioned that he did not believe what Nancy had done was not criminal conduct. The conversations between the attorneys continued, and as late as Sept. 20, Bull allegedly told Lindholm via email that if she did not agree to the diversion program, Nancy would face criminal charges.
The Does allege that Bull violated Nancy's First Amendment right to free expression and by retaliating against her for exercising her right to be free from compelled speech. They also allege that he violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights, to direct their child's upbringing.
“I take the responsibility of being a prosecutor very seriously. In every case my office prosecutes we consider, among other things, whether a criminal charge is appropriate given all of the circumstances. Whether we are dealing with an adult or a juvenile, we decide whether prosecution will be in the interests of the offender, the victim, and society in general.
“This lawsuit is the result of efforts made by my office to respond to a situation where numerous juveniles had exchanged sexually explicit photographs," Bull said in a prepared statement. "Rather than take every juvenile to court I looked for a solution that would help them learn from their mistakes and hopefully prevent their behavior from being repeated, while allowing them to avoid having a criminal or juvenile conviction or even a charge on their record."
Bull is only being sued in his official capacity. The parents are requesting a declaratory judgment that Bull's alleged threats constitute illegal retaliation; a declaratory judgment that the threat has no basis in Iowa criminal law, interferes with their rights to control their child's upbringing; an injunction preventing Bull or any of his associates to file criminal charges against Nancy for the two photos; and costs incurred for this litigation.
“We will vigorously contest the allegations in this lawsuit. They are without merit," Bull stated further. “The decision of what should happen next regarding this juvenile will be made without regard to the filing of this lawsuit. I am not going to hold the poor decisions of her parents and her lawyers against her.”
Bull also has support from a fellow county attorney.
“As the current president of the Iowa County Attorneys Association I was very disappointed to see that this lawsuit was filed," Muscatine County Attorney Alan R. Ostergren said in the same release. "The law is clear that federal courts, absent extraordinary circumstances not present here, do not issue injunctions to prevent state court cases from being filed or moving forward. The legal conclusions contained in the lawsuit make no sense.
“Prosecutors all over Iowa do exactly what Ed Bull did in this case. He looked for a way to resolve a situation in a manner which was appropriate and beneficial to the offenders, victims, and society in general. It is unfortunate that this girl’s parents ran to federal court instead.”
The document filed can be read below.