State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

PA revenge porn ban leaves advocates skeptical

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jul 22, 2014 4:12 PM
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A national advocacy group is calling Pennsylvania’s new anti-revenge porn law inadequate.

Revenge porn refers to nude or sexual images shared without permission of the person pictured. It has been called “intimate partner harassment” by state lawmakers, but legal experts say it might be more broadly called “non-consensual porn” – something that isn’t restricted to spurned lovers posting photos of ex-girlfriends online.

A state law signed earlier this month attempts to make spreading revenge porn a crime. But its narrow scope has troubled advocates like Mary Anne Franks, an associate professor at the Miami School of Law and vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

Franks says the law’s definition of perpetrators as current or past intimate partners of their victims is problematic, leaving out “an enormous number of victims.”

“Women, for instance, have turned in their phones to technicians or they have given their computers to technicians for repair. And these complete strangers... have found naked pictures on these devices, and have published them on Facebook, or they put them on a website, or they have uploaded them to a revenge porn website,” Franks said. “Those victims also would have no recourse under a law like this.”

She also points to the law’s way of qualifying perpetrators: they must have an “intent to harass, annoy, or alarm.”

“We’ve heard from prosecutors all across the country that have said, ‘Please don’t put those requirements in the law,’” said Franks. “It is really difficult to prove as a matter of law that someone is acting with the intent to do something, as opposed to, ‘Oh, I did it because I didn’t think it was a big deal,’ or ‘I thought it was funny,’ or ‘I wanted to make some money for my website.’”

Franks said the Pennsylvania law won’t reign in websites that host revenge porn, saying the issue is best addressed by changing federal law.

“At the same time, that doesn’t mean you can’t write a better law that would, at least in theory, create a potential liability for some of these operators who are actively soliciting these kinds of imagery, which would make it criminal activity in itself,” she said.

One proponent of the law argues it will still be a good tool for prosecuting images disseminated specifically by ex-partners.

“We drafted the legislation to meet the needs of victims primarily -- the victims that had come forward to us,” said Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), who sponsored an earlier revenge porn ban.

Schwank said she heard from victims of intimate partner harassment, not from people victimized by strangers. The scenario of photos stolen by a computer technician “is not the norm in terms of the problems that we saw when we drafted the legislation,” she said.

Schwank added that the legislation’s specificity regarding intent and perpetrators’ relationship to their victims was included in response to concerns raised by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, as well as the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU was originally opposed to a proposed revenge porn ban, and then switched to a neutral stance.

Narrowing the law’s scope, Schwank said, helped address local advocates’ concerns while still providing a solution for a vocal group of victims.

“That doesn’t mean that the law that has been passed is not valuable here in Pennsylvania,” Schwank added.

13 states have passed bans against revenge porn.


This post has been updated to include comments from Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks).

Published in State House Sound Bites

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