Regulating Revenge Porn And Explicit Online Communications With Children – Easier Said Than Done

by Gray Reed & McGraw
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Everyone supports the prevention of sexual predators texting illicit material to people under 17.  Everyone knows that revenge porn is a scourge on public decency.  But, can the law do anything about it?  Should it?

Texas Throws Out Law Banning Explicit Online Communications With Minors.

Yesterday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (our highest court that hears criminal cases) reversed the conviction of a 53-year-old man who was charged with the third degree felony of communicating in a sexually explicit manner with a person whom he believed to be a minor with an intent to arouse or gratify his sexual desire.  You can read about the case here and read the court’s decision here.

The overturned law, Texas Penal Code 33.021(b)(1) states:

A person who is 17 years of age or older commits an offense if, with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person, the person, over the Internet, by electronic mail or text message or other electronic message service or system, or through a commercial online service, intentionally:

(1) communicates in a sexually explicit manner with a minor; or

(2) distributes sexually explicit material to a minor.

To be clear, you cannot solicit a minor for sex (conduct), but sending indecent, but not obscene materials (protected speech) is not illegal.  The court said criminal laws “may protect children from suspected sexual predators before they ever express any intent to commit illegal sexual acts, but it prohibits the dissemination of a vast array of constitutionally protected speech and materials.”  The court also noted there are several other statutes that criminalize other inappropriate conduct with minors.

For the constitutional lawyers out there, the court determined the  “sexually explicit communications” provision is facially unconstitutional because it is content-based speech regulation that could not withstand the strict scrutiny analysis.  Under that test, there needs to be a compelling state interest and the restriction on speech must be narrowly tailored.

While there is a compelling state interest to protect minors from sexual predators, the law covers merely indecent speech which is constitutionally protected.  In light of the many other laws that protect children (solicitation, child pornography, obscenity, harassment), the court said the restriction was too broad.

Subsection (b) covers a whole cornucopia of “titillating talk” or “dirty talk.” But it also includes sexually explicit literature such as “Lolita,” “50 Shades of Grey,” “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” and Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida.” It includes sexually explicit television shows, movies, and performances such as “The Tudors,” “Rome,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Basic Instinct,” Janet Jackson’s “Wardrobe Malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl, and Miley Cyrus’s “twerking”* during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. It includes sexually explicit art such as “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” “Venus De Milo,” “the Naked Maja,” or Japanese Shunga. Communications and materials that, in some manner, “relate to” sexual conduct comprise much of the art, literature, and entertainment of the world from the time of the Greek myths extolling Zeus’s sexual prowess, through the ribald plays of the Renaissance, to today’s Hollywood movies and cable TV shows.

*I will leave it for someone else to determine whether this is the first reference to “twerking” to make it into case law — a sign that the fad needs to go.

The prosecutors say they may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Revenge Porn – a perplexing topic for legislators

The American Bar Association recently wrote an excellent article on revenge porn you can read here.  For the uninitiated, revenge porn is when the ex publishes what were supposed to be private nude pictures for the world to see often including full names, addresses, phone numbers and links to social media profiles.  There is a whole cottage industry bubbling up of websites who encourage posters to provide this information.

As a victim, you can bring civil claims like invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and copyright claims if you took a selfie because the copyright usually belongs to the photographer and not the subject. But, these claims are expensive to bring and there are no guaranties because a lot of people blame the victim for having nude pictures in the first place.

Meanwhile, it is hard to sue the websites where these pictures are downloaded because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives immunity to websites based on claims related to user generated content.

California passed a law last month that seeks to punish “Any person who photographs or records by any means the image of the intimate body part or parts of another identifiable person, under circumstances where the parties agree or understand that the image shall remain private, and the person subsequently distributes the image taken, with the intent to cause serious emotional distress, and the depicted person suffers serious emotional distress.”

Professor Goldman on his Technology and Marketing Law Blog points out the faults of the law which include: (i) it does not apply to selfies; (ii) it does not apply to redistribution or websites which could have Section 230 issues; and (iii) the difficulty in proving beyond a reasonable doubt the parties’ expectations of privacy or the intent of the accused.

While having the intent to cause severe emotional distress may avoid First Amendment scrutiny, over broad laws would cover the publishing of Anthony Weiner’s infamous photos. Here is a Wired article by Sarah Jeong arguing that criminal laws may not be the answer.

While there are some class action lawsuits against some of the sites that encourage this behavior that we will keep an eye on, one of the best weapons may be to shine the light on the scum who engage in revenge porn using the same social media tools and the let the markets take care of the websites.

UPDATE – NOVEMBER 1 - Ask a question and the Internet answers.  Professor Goldman directed me to one of his earlier tweets:

Jargon watch: “twerking” has appeared in at least 2 court opinions: http://t.co/B49uzgiBjf and http://t.co/lMluuRW8N4 #WordsIWishIDidntKnow

— Eric Goldman (@ericgoldman) October 30, 2013

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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