Revenge Porn

Free-Speech Groups Urge Veto on Rhode Island 'Sextortion' Measure

The state's new "revenge porn" measure is "so breathtakingly broad...that it criminalizes activity that involves neither revenge nor porn."



The New England First Amendment Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Press Association are urging Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to veto a new measure meant to deal with "revenge porn" and "sextortion." The state defines revenge porn as "sexually explicit media that is publicly shared online without the consent of the pictured individual…uploaded by former lovers or hackers for the purpose of humiliation and exploitation." However, "unlike the laws of virtually every other state on this subject," the Rhode Island measure does "not require a photo's dissemination to cause harm to any person or even be intended to cause harm in order to violate the law," the civil-liberties groups object.

"'Revenge porn' should be punished," they continue, "but when a bill like this misappropriates and distorts the term, and puts the media and others at risk of criminal prosecution for engaging in activity that is a far cry from the bill's purported intent, we firmly believe a veto is in order."

The new legislation, passed earlier this month, prohibits posting sexually explicit photos without the subject's permission. First-time offenders face imprisonment up to one year, a $1,000 fine, or both, while subsequent offenses could yield up to three years imprisonment and a $3,000 fine.

The legislation also bans "sextortion," which the state defines as "a new cybercrime that occurs when offenders use personal images—often stolen or obtained by hacking—to force the victim to engage in sending more sexually explicit photos or videos under threat the images will be made public," or to coerce them into paying money to keep the images private. If that sounds like pretty classic extortion to you, you're right, and Rhode Island already criminalizes extortion. But who doesn't love a pun? Plus the new "sextortion" charge—a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine—could probably be added to regular extortion and/or revenge porn charges to give prosecutors an extra carceral edge.

In their letter to Gov. Raimondo, the ACLU and company called the new measure "so breathtakingly broad in its reach that it criminalizes activity that involves neither revenge nor porn. It criminalizes activity that harms no one and is not intended to harm anyone. It turns hundreds, if not thousands, of young people into criminals. And it creates a potentially chilling effect on the exercise of free speech by the media, which face criminal penalties if they fail to prove to a jury that photos they disseminated were not 'in the public interest.'"

"Even in situations where there is admittedly no public interest," the letter continues, "some of the conduct encompassed by this legislation simply does not deserve to be treated as a crime." For instance, when a host of nude celebrity photos were hacked several years ago—activity already punishable under other laws—anyone who looked for or shared any of the photos could be charged under the new Rhode Island bill.

"We already have a strong privacy law in Rhode Island," said Linda Lotridge Levin, secretary of the Rhode Island Press Association. "I don't understand the rationale for this legislation. It appears to be just a knee-jerk reaction."