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How Does Massachusetts’ Proposed “Revenge Porn” Law Compare to Other State’s Laws?

By: Leah Durst, Legal Internblogger-336371_1920

Former California Congresswoman Katie Hill recently resigned after sexually explicit photos of Hill and a staffer engaged in consensual sexual activity were leaked, allegedly by her abusive ex-husband. Her resignation should trigger broader discussions about the consequences of living in a digital age: how do we view and treat victims and perpetrators of “revenge porn”?  What legal rights are there for people whose sexual privacy has been invaded, and what legal consequences are there for those who access and distribute such material? It turns out that Massachusetts is one of the last states to take up this question at the legislative level. 

In recent years, State legislatures and Congress have addressed – or attempted to address – the use of sexually explicit images or videos to attack (primarily) women in the public eye. As of today, 46 states and D.C. have laws making the distribution of revenge porn crime  only Massachusetts, Wyoming, Mississippi, and South Carolina do not have such laws on the books. In 2019 the SHIELD Act was introduced into Congress to make it illegal to knowingly use interstate commerce to distribute an “intimate visual depiction” in certain circumstances, though that bill has not been passed into law. 

In September 2019, the Massachusetts Appeals Court summarized the state law on  revenge porn in Commonwealth v. Salmons. In Salmons, the court addressed whether a judge could order a defendant’s illegally seized phone to be “wiped” before it was returned to him in order to erase sexual recordings of the victim in the case, the defendant’s former girlfriend. In deciding the case, the court discussed the existing legal avenues available to “revenge porn” victims. These include statutes that permit some victims to obtain abuse or harassment prevention orders. Various criminal laws might apply to revenge porn cases, including witness intimidation laws (should person depicted in the image or video be a witness or a potential witness to a crime)laws criminalizing recording nude or partially nude people without their consent; laws criminalizing distribution of obscene material; laws prohibiting criminal harassment; and federal cyber-stalking laws. Under existing civil law, a revenge porn victim could seek a civil injunction against the distributer or publisher of the explicit material or seek damages in a tort case. Despite these legal options, the Salmons court – pointing to a Vermont Supreme Court decision upholding that state’s revenge porn statute in the face of a constitutional challenge – specifically suggested that the Massachusetts legislature consider directly addressing revenge porn. 

In fact, a bill addressing revenge porn has been pending on Beacon Hill. Governor Baker re-filed the current version of the bill in February 2019, but it has remained with the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on Beacon Hill for the past nine months. 

The proposed bill, H. 76addresses a number of different topics and creates statutory scheme for criminalizing revenge porn. As Governor Baker’s letter accompanying the bill states, “We have laws punishing the non-consensual recording of sexually explicit images of unsuspecting people. Our laws do not address, however, when a person takes a sexually explicit image or recording that was lawfully obtained and then distributes it with the intent to harm the person depicted and without that person’s consent.” H76 would amend G.L. c. 272, § 107(b) and would make it a crime to knowingly distribute visual material where: 

  1. The material depicts an identifiable person who is nude, partially nude, or engaged in sexual conduct; 
  1.  The distribution would cause a reasonable person to suffer harm; 
  1. The defendant distributes the material with an intent to harm, harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce the victim or distributes the material with a reckless disregard for the likelihood that the person depicted or the person receiving the material will suffer harm.  

The bill makes clear that consent to the creation of the image or video itself is not consent to the material’s distribution. Both the dissemination of revenge porn and the threat to disseminate revenge porn would be felonies punishable by up to five years in state prison. 

The current bill requires that the person knowingly send the image and that the person intend to harm the victim in the distribution of the materialThe inclusion of this “intent to harm” language mitigates First Amendment concerns that have rendered other states’ revenge porn laws unconstitutional. For example, in 2015 the ACLU settled a lawsuit over Arizona’s law, which had prohibited the publishing or redistribution of nude photographs with no requirement that the defendant intended to harm the subject of the photographs. In 2018, an appellate court in Texas ruled that the state’s four-year-old revenge porn law violated the First Amendment; to remedy that issue the legislature revised the law to include an “intent to harm” provision.  More recently-enacted laws, like New York’s 2019 Unlawful Dissemination or Publication of an Intimate Imageinclude the “intent to cause harm language to limit First Amendment concernsThe federal SHIELD Act, on the other hand, has no “intent to harm” requirement. It requires that the the defendant act with knowledge of or reckless disregard for (a) a subject’s lack of consent to the distribution, and (b) the subject’s reasonable expectation that the image would remain private. 

In addition to the intent to harm requirement, the Massachusetts bill also contains exceptions for distribution made in the public interest, and distribution of images that are a matter of public concern. This too has been an area where free speech activists have raised concerns about the impact of other states’ laws. As many legislators have noted, without a public interest exception important images – like those depicting torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib or related to elected leaders’ sexual misconduct – might not be shared 

Katie Hill’s resignation illuminates the need for social and legal progress surrounding the nonconsensual distribution of explicit images. Massachusetts appears to have crafted one of the narrowest state laws on this subject. While the state legislation appears to reflect the lessons learned from other states’ overbroad attempts to criminalize sharing nude photographs, the legislature should be careful to ensure that the final version of the bill is narrowly tailored to respect First Amendment rights while appropriately protecting victims of revenge porn  

 

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