California joins one woman’s crusade against ‘revenge porn’

October 2, 2013

A month after Holly Jacobs broke up with her boyfriend in 2009, she says, she discovered that he had posted naked photos and a video of her on Facebook.

Fast-forward a few months, and the content had gone viral. Nude images of Jacobs appeared on at least 200 websites, along with her full name, e-mail address and job information.

She didn’t know what to do, so she went to the police—three different times to three different stations. She hired a lawyer. She contacted the FBI. She hired an Internet guru to try to scrub the offending material. Nothing worked. She finally changed her name (Holly Jacobs is her new name) and left her job.

And then Jacobs decided to fight back. She registered a Web site — EndRevengePorn.org — and began a petition drive to outlaw the distribution of nude photos or video of someone without their consent. She wanted to make such behavior illegal not just in the United States, but because the Internet is truly global in its reach, internationally as well.

And she’s having success. Largely through her efforts, as of October 1 California has made it illegal “to post identifiable nude pictures of another online without their consent or with the intent of causing emotional distress.” The law states that doing so is equivalent to harming someone through “disorderly conduct,” making the poster “subject to that same [misdemeanor] punishment.” If convicted, perpetrators could be subject to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The penalty will double if the perp does it again.

Although partially responsible for getting the bipartisan legislation, which was sponsored by Central Valley Republican Anthony Canella, passed, Jacobs said that it doesn’t go far enough. Now the director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a nascent organization that aims to provide support to victims of online harassment, Jacobs noted that the law does not cover “selfies” (like the pics that Anthony Weiner shot of himself) that are freely shared with the perpetrator but then distributed without consent. According to a CCRI survey, up to 80 percent of victims belong to this unprotected category. Additionally, the California law requires posters to act with “intent to cause serious emotional distress,” rather than acting, for example, in pursuit of fame or money.

Legislators in California narrowed the scope of the bill after some cited First Amendment concerns. And Florida, where CCRI is based, recently considered a similar bill but rejected it, citing the First Amendment. Clearly, Jacobs would rather that California’s new law was closer to the one in New Jersey, which treats revenge porn as a felony and allows for prosecution even when there isn’t evidence of harassment or stalking.

“The legislators are not being educated on the First Amendment,” Jacobs said. “They need to start doing their homework.”

University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks, who is on CCRI’s board, agrees in a brief on EndRevengePorn.org that this behavior doesn’t violate First Amendment rights and, furthermore, is especially detrimental to women: “While non-consensual pornography can affect both male and female individuals, empirical evidence indicates that the majority of victims are women and girls, and that women and girls face more serious consequences as a result of their victimization. By violating legal and social commitments to gender equality, non-consensual pornography is similar to sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence.”

But for now, Jacobs is just happy that revenge porn will be outlawed in one more state, even if the punishment lacks teeth. She plans to immediately get to work with Canella’s office to amend the law to be more like New Jersey’s, which since its inception in 2004 has faced “no serious challenges.” She says her campaign is also gaining traction in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Tennesseee, Wisconsin and Texas. And she expects legislation to be reintroduced in Florida very soon. But the real goal is a federal bill.

“They’re trying to pat themselves on the back to say, ‘We did something,’” Jacobs said. “But the next round [of legislation] will be a lot stronger than the California law.”

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