Mass. House passes bill criminalizing revenge porn

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Individuals who share sexual images of someone without their consent can now be punished with up to two and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine for a first offense.

This Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 photo shows the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston. AP Photo/Elise Amendola

The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a bill unanimously Thursday that would make it illegal to distribute explicit pictures or videos of someone without their consent.

The bill is intended to discourage “revenge porn,” a digital-age revenge tactic where someone, often an ex-boyfriend or -girlfriend, will attempt to punish another person by releasing sexual photos or videos of them online.

The bill clarifies that the state’s existing criminal harassment laws also apply to the distribution of explicit materials without consent with the intent to “harm, harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce, or with reckless disregard for the likelihood that the person depicted or the person receiving will suffer harm.”

Under the bill, a first offense would qualify as a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $10,000 and or imprisonment of up to two and a half years, which is a stronger penalty than the underlying criminal harassment statute.

Further offenses could be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony, and would carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

Importantly, if the defendant was a minor, they would only pay a fine of up to $500, and spend up to six months in a juvenile correctional facility.

In no situation would the defendant be added to the sex offender registry.

Rep. Michael Day, a Stoneham Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee that advanced an earlier version of the bill, told State House News Service (SHNS) Thursday that he believes the state’s existing criminal harassment law should have applied to revenge porn.

However, he explained to the news service, district attorneys have been unable to prosecute revenge porn cases under that law because a 2005 Supreme Judicial Court ruling held that three or more incidents need to take place to constitute criminal harassment.

Day told SHNS the House bill also stipulates that prosecutors can pursue charges after just one instance of disseminating explicit images of someone without their consent.

Every other state besides South Carolina has passed a law banning the dissemination of sexual images of someone without their permission since California passed the first law of its kind in 2013.

Supporters of the bill say Massachusetts has been behind other states on the issue for years, SHNS reported.

The news service reported that Rep. Alyson Sullivan, an Abington Republican, spoke to legislators Thursday about a sexual assault survivor who was coerced into sending nude pictures of herself to a classmate she had a crush on when she was a freshman in high school more than a decade ago.

Sullivan said that soon after, the classmate sexually assaulted her. When she told a friend what the classmate had done, he spread the nude pictures of her around the school.

“Sadly, this victim of a sexual assault quickly became known as the naked picture girl,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said that when the teen went to police for help, instead of being treated as a victim, she was told she could be prosecuted for sharing naked pictures of herself because she is a minor.

“While we failed her 14 years ago, today, that changes,” Sullivan said. “…I want to say to all of those that are suffering and to all the survivors, I am sorry it has taken us this long.”

The bill also addresses teen sexting, which is currently illegal under the state’s child pornography laws.

The bill creates a new offense that is entirely separate from child pornography charges for minors who share sexual images of themselves or others.

It would put the state’s attorney general in charge of creating a new diversion program that would educate teens found sexting rather than strapping them with criminal charges.

The bill would also decriminalize consensual sexting between 16- and 17-year-olds, who have reached the state’s age of consent but are not legal adults.

The bill will now go to the Massachusetts Senate for a vote, and then to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk. Baker originally introduced his own bill that would criminalize revenge porn, but the Legislature favored the current bill.

Mass. House passes bill criminalizing revenge porn

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