California says ‘NO’ to revenge porn

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On October 1st the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, signed into law a bill banning ‘revenge porn’ being posted online. For those unaware, revenge porn is an ugly internet phenomenon in which nude photos or videos of another person, usually an ex-partner, are posted online without expressed consent. This of course can cause huge distress and embarrassment for the victims and is a major breach of trust between individuals. It has even led to the suicide of young people in the past, such as American teenager Amanda Todd last year. This new bill is the first proper step taken by the any Government to actively fight revenge porn, its stated intention is to make it illegal to post identifiable explicit content of a person without their expressed permission. The punishment for posting revenge porn? First time offenders can face a $1000 fine with a potential of six months in prison, this is then extended to a $2000 fine and up to a year in prison for repeat offenders. This, the state of California hopes, will finally dissuade people from committing this unpleasant crime. In addition, both the state of New York and some within the Federal Government itself hope to pass even more extensive laws to deal with the problem. However, there are problems with this bill, namely that is too limited to deal with this problem and is also up for manipulation in certain cases.

The wording of the bill is quite bizarre in that the offender can only be prosecuted if they both took and distributed the photos or videos. This limits the law since a large majority of revenge porn cases refer to the victim sending a photo of themselves to another person, with a false level of trust clearly in place, and then the recipient of that photo will post it online in an effort to cause distress and humiliation. The loophole in the Bill is strange in that it ignores a major part of the revenge porn culture, instead it is left fairly limited in what it can actually do. It has been argued before that sending nude photos of yourself to anyone is a very risky move, however this form of argument is a dangerous one to get into, since it leads to victim blaming in a situation where trust was thought to have been established. Holly Jacobs of EndRevengePorn.org in particular dismisses the idea that a victim is to blame in these incidents, again using the argument that a level of trust has been established first before any pictures or videos are shared between individuals.   Surely the focus should be placed on preventing anyone from being able to post any form of revenge porn online, rather than on blaming a victim. This bill does go some way in preventing this from happening, however it clearly has its limitations.

In addition, there are some in the USA who claim that this bill is an infringement on the First Amendment, the right to Free Speech. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have spoken against the bill claiming that this limits the public’s right to free speech and also has issues with the definition of ‘emotional distress’, a key factor in deciding how much of an impact pictures or videos can have on an individual. Jeff Hermes of Harvard University also points out that this bill can easily be manipulated by certain politicians who wish to keep themselves out of the public eye after certain compromising pictures appear online. Hermes uses the case of Anthony Weiner as an example, the New York congressman who had a rather ‘graphic’ photo of himself released by a 23 year old woman he had been ‘sexting’. Weiner attempted to cover this up, obviously not keen for his wife to discover his deceit and with this bill Hermes believes that politicians such as Weiner will be able to cover up their indiscretions, in an attempt to keep public opinion positive towards them.

It is clear that although this bill has some problems, it is a definite step in the right direction. The idea that stopping revenge porn is an infringement on the First Amendment is ridiculous, since it is simply a wish to prevent great distress being caused at the hands of malicious people, not a desire to curtail the free speech of the American population. Revenge porn will just continue if nothing is done, but the steps taken by the state of California, and hopefully other states as well, are hopefully sending a strong message that this hateful phenomenon is going to be tolerated no longer.

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