Katie Hill resignation reignites push for federal 'revenge porn' law

Katie Hill resignation reignites push for federal 'revenge porn' law
© Greg Nash

 

Rep. Katie HillKatherine (Katie) Lauren HillGaetz tweets photo of teenage adopted son after hearing battle The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The American Investment Council - Trump takes his 'ready to reopen' mantra on the road The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrat concedes in California House race MORE’s (D-Calif.) resignation this week after nude photos of her surfaced online has reignited a debate over the need for a federal “revenge porn” law.

The freshman lawmaker, who resigned amid allegations she had inappropriate sexual relationships with congressional and campaign staffers, said Monday that after she leaves Congress she will devote her time to fighting revenge porn, a term used to describe when an intimate or explicit image is published without the consent of the person photographed.

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Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have laws banning the practice, but there is no comparable statute at the federal level. That discrepancy has created legal challenges — like whether Hill’s case falls under D.C. or California laws — and inconsistent enforcement.

Bills to address the issue have been introduced in both chambers of Congress this year, though none have made it out of committee. However, the circumstances surrounding Hill’s resignation may galvanize those legislative efforts.

“It is likely that the attention that is being paid to the Katie Hill case might push it forward,” said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

The most prominent revenge porn bill on Capitol Hill — the Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution (SHIELD) Act — would establish federal criminal liability for individuals who share private, sexually explicit or nude images without the consent of those photographed.

“Federal legislation, the SHIELD Act … is the most clear, comprehensive law that you could have on the books. And it has the added benefit of being federal, so you don’t have the jurisdictional question,” said Franks, who helped draft the bill.

The measure was introduced in May by Reps. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierProtests force military reckoning on race Air Force documents acknowledged 'persistent' racial bias in justice system HHS watchdog says actions should be free from political interference MORE (D-Calif.) and John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoDemocrats release bilingual ads on police reform bill Lawmakers introduce legislation to establish national cybersecurity director Progressives riding high as votes tabulated in NY, Kentucky MORE (R-N.Y.) and has four Republicans among its 36 co-sponsors. White House hopeful Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit Biden's marijuana plan is out of step with public opinion MORE (D-Calif.) introduced companion legislation in the Senate, where Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Biden campaign adds staff in three battleground states Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress? MORE (R-N.C.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response State election officials warn budget cuts could lead to November chaos Biden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street MORE (D-Minn.), another presidential candidate, are the bill’s lone co-sponsors.

Hill’s case highlights the problems that arise from the current patchwork of state laws.

Earlier this month, the conservative news site RedState.org and British tabloid the Daily Mail published nude photos of Hill without her permission, while including allegations that the California lawmaker was romantically involved with a female campaign staff member and her legislative director.

Hill, 32, denied having a relationship with her legislative director, which would be a violation of House rules, but admitted that she and her husband had a consensual relationship with a member of her campaign.

She accused her “abusive husband,” whom she is in the process of divorcing, of engaging in a “smear campaign built around cyber exploitation,” alleging he enlisted “hateful political operatives” to help distribute the nude photos of her.

RedState and the Daily Mail did not respond to requests for comment on their decisions to publish the photos.

Hill has vowed to hold the two news outlets and her husband accountable, but experts who spoke with The Hill said a legal case could prove challenging.

John Rogers, a California-based lawyer who has worked on several revenge porn cases, said key factors of where the photos were uploaded from and where Hill was when she learned about their existence would determine which nonconsensual pornography laws would apply.

“Several factors are — where was it uploaded to the internet? Who uploaded it, exactly? And where exactly was congresswoman Hill when she found out about it?” Rogers said.

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Franks added that different state laws have different definitions of revenge porn.

“The downside has been that these 46 states and D.C. have all come up with varying definitions of what nonconsensual pornography is. They’re all coming up with different penalties and there is a lot of confusion about which law would actually control in any given situation, especially given the fact that nonconsensual pornography so often occurs over the internet,” she said.

For example, while D.C. law requires the victim to prove the disseminator had an intent to hurt them or get a financial benefit, California only requires the victim to prove they experienced “serious emotional distress.”

While federal legislation has been introduced before, this year’s SHIELD Act is seen by its supporters of having better prospects than in previous years.

“As the author of the SHIELD Act and someone who has worked to eliminate so-called revenge porn, I’ve spoken with many survivors of these attacks and I know that the financial, emotional, and professional toll they suffer is staggering and does not end with the initial violation,” Speier said in a statement to The Hill.

“This is precisely why we need a federal law to bar this predatory behavior and hold those who commit such revengeful acts legally accountable for their malignant behavior.”

Hill is not the first lawmaker to resign from Congress after nude photos were posted online.

Former Rep. Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonBottom line Ex-Tea Party lawmakers turn heads on K Street Longtime GOP aide to launch lobbying shop MORE (R-Texas) announced he would not seek reelection in 2018 after a nude photo of him appeared on Twitter.

The Texas Republican apologized at the time for not using “better judgment.” He also acknowledged having consensual sexual relationships with other women while separated from his wife.

Efforts to ban nonconsensual pornography have increased in recent years, in large part to keep pace with technology.

“There has been more attention on this issue in the last two years, and that has helped drive awareness and interest and passing laws,” said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which backed the SHIELD Act.

But as momentum has built for restrictions, some civil rights groups have voiced opposition.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said revenge porn laws can have a chilling effect on free speech, and has opposed legislation in several states.

Franks argued that those concerns obscure the effect revenge porn has on women.

“The threat of nonconsensual pornography and the execution of it really does silence women,” she said. “So if we’re concerned about free speech and democracy that the First Amendment is supposed to protect then we really have to face the fact that if you let people do what RedState has done or what her husband has done then you’re essentially allowing people to silence women.”