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March 18, 2013

Rape case judge warns teens about social media

LOS ANGELES — Sunday, two teen-age Steubenville, Ohio, football players were convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl at a high school party.

Starting from the night of the assault last August, their rape case was one of the most widely publicized in American history — largely because the assailants and their witnesses whipped out their cellphones to document the event in real time.

In sentencing the boys to a minimum of one year in juvenile jail, Judge Thomas Lipps doled out some advice to their peers on how to avoid the same fate. He urged them "to have discussions about how you talk to your friends; how you record things on the social media so prevalent today; and how you conduct yourself when drinking is put upon you by your friends."

That's an unfortunate message to leave the teen-agers of Steubenville, and the world that is watching. The "social media so prevalent today" did not cause a sexual assault in a small Ohio town. In fact, social media is what made the case prosecutable.

Following the events of the party, news of the assault spread through the community — and later, the media — in a web of incriminating text messages, self-referential tweets, Instagrammed photos and forwarded cellphone videos. The victim herself testified that she could only confirm she had been assaulted after she "read text messages among friends and saw a photo of herself naked, along with a video that made fun of her and the alleged attack."

Thanks to social media, this wasn't another case of "he said, she said." It was a case of "they all said." As the victim's mother told the boys, "you were your own accuser, through the social media that you chose to publish your criminal conduct on."

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