Metro, News

R. I. General Assembly votes to criminalize revenge porn

Electronic Imaging Act includes language on intent, has received Gov. Raimondo’s support

By
Metro Editor
Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Robyn Giragosian did not plan for her nude photographs to proliferate throughout her community when she took them for her partner at the beginning of their romantic relationship. But now, when she goes to work at Headstart, drops her kids off at school or works with staff at her congressional delegation, Giragosian knows that many of her peers and coworkers have seen her naked body. “You can only imagine the embarrassment and anguish I felt and continue to feel,” Giragosian testified at a House hearing April 3, adding that she could have lost her job and her ability to support her family if she had worked for a less supportive organization. Like many women across the state and beyond, Giragosian is a victim of “revenge porn,” the non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images or videos.

As recently as last week, Giragosian had no legal recourse against the ex-boyfriend who had sent hundreds of emails containing her private photos and videos. But on April 13, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed legislation that bans revenge porn in the state. The bill (H7452/S2450), approved unanimously by the House last Thursday and the Senate last Tuesday, criminalizes the non-consensual dissemination of electronic images of identifiable people 18 years or older who are engaging in sexually explicit conduct.

Giragosian is far from alone in her experience with revenge porn and its consequences. A report conducted by Data and Society found that 4 percent of U.S. internet users have been a victim of revenge porn. The effects of this form of dating violence can be excruciating: According to a study by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 51 percent of victims of revenge porn targets have had suicidal thoughts, 93 percent say they have suffered significant emotional distress and 82 percent said they have suffered significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning as a result of revenge porn. Ten percent of women under the age of 30 have been threatened with revenge porn. 

The Rhode Island legislation — known as the “Electronic Imaging Act” — is not the State House’s first attempt to address revenge porn. Two years ago, a bill supported by Attorney General Peter Kilmartin made it through the General Assembly, only to be vetoed by Gov. Gina Raimondo on the grounds that the bill’s general language threatened freedom of speech, including the publication of some news images. The governor has previously thrown her support behind versions of the bill that require proof of the perpetrator’s malintent. This year, representatives of the Attorney General and the governor arrived at a compromise and created a bill satisfactory to both offices.

“Both (our office and the governor’s) are very comfortable that we are protecting victims and making sure this bill is legally sound,” said Joee Lindbeck, assistant attorney general at Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General.

The Governor is yet to sign the bill, though her office has indicated that she will. 

Unlike previous versions of proposed legislation, the current bill says that in order to be found guilty, the perpetrator must have shared the image “with reckless disregard for the likelihood that the depicted person will suffer harm” or with “intent to harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce the person that is depicted,” testified Rep. Robert Craven, D-Providence, lead sponsor of the bill.

The bill includes exemptions meant to address concerns that criminalizing the publication of photos violates the freedom of speech. Images related to law enforcement, medical treatment, scientific activities and events or figures of public concern are among the exemptions enumerated in the bill.

“These exemptions more than protect the first amendment,” Lindbeck said at the House hearing.

The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence advocated on behalf of the legislation during the House hearing. “Every year that we go without getting this law enacted … causes pain to the victims that are traumatized by this most cruel form of abuse,” testified John Wessley, director of policy for the coalition.

But not all of the state’s players are satisfied with the language in the bill passed Thursday. Executive Director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union Steven Brown cautioned that though he supports the concept of criminalizing revenge porn, the language of the legislation does not articulate well enough that there must be an “intent to harm an individual,” Brown said at the House hearing. Without more specific language, a teenager sharing hacked photos of a celebrity with a friend would qualify as a criminal, he added.

The RIACLU and the Rhode Island Press Association, which includes the Providence Journal and Newport Daily News, are particularly concerned with the ramifications that the bill may have for media outlets throughout the state. President of RIPA James Bessette said he is concerned that newsrooms would have to “perform self-censorship” and potentially withold content deserving of public attention for fear of a lawsuit. If sued under the Electronic Imaging Act, “we could have a situation where it wouldn’t be the editors deciding what is suitable for public consumption, but rather a 12 person jury,” Bassette testified during the House hearing. He cited an infamous photograph known as “Napalm Girl,” which featured a nine-year-old running naked on a road during the Vietnam War. Despite his concerns, Bessette said he prefers the passed legislation to the Attorney General’s bill proposed last year. The previous version of the bill included less language on intent than the one passed last week, he said.

Professor of Sociology Gregory Elliott, who teaches a class titled SOC 1440: “Intimate Violence,” is also opposed to the bill. His concerns are not first-amendment related, but rather due to his belief that legislation is generally an ineffective tool to prevent revenge porn.

“If you understand what human beings are like and what the social systems they create and maintain are like, then you’ll see you don’t have to make a social problem a … legal problem,” Elliott said, adding that revenge porn perpetrators should be met with “ceremonies of reconciliation.”

Giragosian, however, believes the legislation may deter the cybercrime that has infringed on her privacy. “Had (the bill) been enacted at the time, (my ex-boyfriend) may have thought twice before taking such action,” she said at the hearing.

Rhode Island is one of a handful of states without legislation directly addressing revenge porn. According to a report by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a nonprofit organization serving victims of cyber crimes, 38 states and Washington, D.C. have criminal laws against revenge porn. In April 2017, a Washington, D.C. Superior Court judge imposed a 10-year sentence in a case involving revenge porn — the first conviction under the capital’s 2014 image exploitation law, reported The Washington Post.

The United States Congress is also working toward legislation to criminalize revenge porn. The ENOUGH Act — bipartisan legislation introduced by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-C.A., and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-C.A., in Nov. 2017 — would make it unlawful “to knowingly distribute a private, visual depiction of an individual’s intimate parts or of an individual engaging in sexually explicit conduct, with reckless disregard for the individual’s lack of consent to the distribution.” The bill came a year after Speier proposed the Intimate Privacy Protection Act of 2016, which only made it to the House of Representatives.

The ENOUGH Act has bipartisan support from congressmen including Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas; it is also backed by tech companies including Facebook and Twitter. While the national legislation has not yet reached the floor in this legislative session, the state-level bill is well on track to be signed into law.

Gov. Raimondo is “fully supportive of this version of the bill and looks forward to signing it,” wrote Josh Block, press secretary at the Governor’s office, adding that Raimondo believes that “no one should ever have to endure the trauma and embarrassment of having a private photo published.”

Giragosian stressed that the legislation will have wide-ranging effects. “I never thought this was something that could happen to me, but the reality is it could happen to anyone,” Giragosian said.

— Additional reporting by Anna Kramer