Pa. bill would make online 'revenge porn' a crime

Posted: December 11, 2013

HARRISBURG The typical victim is female and over 18.

A sexually explicit photograph or video of her surfaces on the Internet without her consent - and can get picked up by websites that actively solicit such images.

It's been dubbed "revenge porn," because oftentimes it is a former partner or spouse who posts the image out of spite or anger over a breakup. A growing number of states, including Pennsylvania, are crafting legislation to make it a crime to do so.

"It was surprising to me how much this goes on and how little many of us hear about it," said Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks), who is championing the bill, in which revenge porn will be referred to as "intimate partner harassment."

In speaking with domestic-violence counselors and others, Schwank said, it became apparent that "in many cases, victims are very reluctant even to bring it up, because there is really this sense that 'I brought this on myself.' "

Schwank said she planned to introduce legislation this week that would amend Pennsylvania's harassment law to make it a crime to post a sexually explicit image of someone without his or her consent if the intent is to "harass, annoy, or alarm."

Her bill would make the behavior a second-degree misdemeanor for adults, one grade higher than other acts of harassment. The crime would carry a maximum penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

Erik Arneson, the spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said the GOP caucus was concerned about the issue but had not discussed the bill.

If Pennsylvania were to pass such a law, it would join New Jersey and California as states that have criminalized such behavior, said Mary Anne Franks, who teaches family law, criminal law, and criminal procedure at the University of Miami School of Law.

A handful of other states, including Maryland and New York, have seen bills introduced on the issue, and legislators in at least a half-dozen more are considering doing so.

Franks and other advocates say the legislation is necessary because it is difficult for victims of revenge porn to get relief under harassment or criminal-stalking laws. Such laws generally single out repeated harassment and may not apply to people who post an image once.

Victims can try to bring a lawsuit against the person who posted the image without their consent, but litigation can be slow and costly, and can bring more publicity to the images - the last thing a victim wants, Franks said. And it won't necessarily prevent websites - some of which actively solicit men or women to post sexually explicit photos of their ex-partners - from keeping the images online.

"When something like this happens, the effects are devastating," Franks said. "It can destroy careers, it can destroy intimate relationships. . . . And it is very hard to undo. Once something is on the Internet, it is very hard to get it scrubbed."

Advocates say victims of such unauthorized posts are not limited to partners in intimate relationships - although they tend to be the most frequent target. Franks noted that there have been instances of people being recorded without their knowledge, only to find their graphic images online.

When it happens in intimate relationships, revenge porn can be a form of domestic violence, Schwank said.

That was the case with a 23-year-old Schuylkill County, Pa., woman who spoke to The Inquirer under the condition that her name not be used. She had given her ex-boyfriend a sexually explicit photo of herself, and while he never posted it on the Internet, she said, he would threaten her with exposure if she did not do what he asked of her.

"It drives you crazy, literally," the woman said. "I felt like I didn't have anyone to turn to."

While few dispute that revenge porn can be emotionally and personally devastating, there are concerns that legislation to criminalize the behavior could infringe on free speech.

Andrew Hoover, the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said he has seen a draft of Schwank's legislation, and his group isn't likely to oppose it.

Hoover said there can be narrow situations in which speech can be criminalized, when the behavior is done with the intent to harm.

"The reality is, there are people who are victimized by this kind of behavior," he said, "and if there is a way to address it without hurting First Amendment rights, that is a good thing."


acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934 @AngelasInk

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