The Post’s View

States can address revenge porn with carefully crafted laws

REVENGE PORNOGRAPHY, sometimes known as involuntary porn, is a blight on the Internet. Spurned lovers, intent on inflicting emotional damage, post sexually intimate videos or still images of their former partners, often annotated with names, addresses, e-mail addresses and other information that invite cyber-stalking and other forms of harassment. Some victims — and the victims usually are women — have been forced to change their names to escape the resulting deluge of unwanted and prurient attention.

New Jersey and California passed legislation designed to curb revenge porn by criminalizing it; other states, including Maryland and Virginia, are considering measures. If the bills are narrowly and carefully crafted, they could serve as a deterrent.

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For good reason, courts have been cautious in limiting speech, allowing the First Amendment to prevail except in special circumstances, such as the plausible incitement to violence, defamation and some threats. They have allowed more control over certain instances of privacy invasions involving non-public figures. No public interest is served and no contribution to free expression is made by the publication of intimate images whose only purpose is to cause anguish and emotional distress.

Some free-speech advocates have argued that civil law provides adequate safeguards for victims, who may sue to collect damages if such images are published without authorization. Litigation has been successful in some cases. Yet many victims cannot afford a lawyer, and the chances of success in court are unclear. Criminalizing nasty and uncivil conduct is not always the best course, but it is justified for revenge porn.

Whether images were made with or without a victim’s knowledge — and even if they were “selfies” sent to a lover — the nonconsensual publication of private, sexually explicit material is an act of aggression akin to sexual harassment. The effect is to wreak damage on people’s lives.

In Virginia, freshman Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) introduced narrowly drawn legislation that makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison, to post without authorization sexually revealing images that cause “substantial emotional distress.” Granted, judges and juries may wrestle with what constitutes “substantial emotional distress.” Nonetheless, this would be a fitting punishment for what is essentially an act of unbridled cruelty.

 
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