WASHINGTON — A proposed law that would punish people who publish “revenge porn” online will likely be put forth in the next Congress, but it remains to be seen how effective the measure — if passed — would be in combating the practice on America’s college campuses.
“We are totally aware of the huge problem on campus of sexual assault and this sort of conduct on campuses as well,” said Josh Connolly, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who introduced the bill — known as the “Intimate Privacy Protection Act,” or IPPA — earlier this year and plans to do so again next session.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier
While sexual assaults on campus are often handled by Title IX coordinators, Connolly said he didn’t foresee that happening if the revenge porn bill becomes law. He said the “default” should be to have attorneys general or district attorneys handle the cases.
“Regarding any sort of jurisdictional ambiguity, we don’t really foresee that,” Connolly said. “I think it is solidly within a DA or an AG’s jurisdiction of whether or not to take a case or not, and we would encourage them to do so.”
Connolly made his remarks Friday during a panel discussion on Capitol Hill titled “Outlawing Revenge Porn: How Congress Can Protect Privacy and Reduce Online Harassment.”
The discussion comes at a time when sex video scandals — sometimes with costly and tragic results — are making more and more headlines.
People of all ages have become ensnared in the practice in which perpetrators post images or videos of their victims nude or engaged in sex acts.
The victims range from celebrities such as Hulk Hogan, who earlier this year won a $140 million lawsuit against Gawker for publishing a portion of a sex tape of the pro wrestler, to otherwise anonymous young people such as Tovonna Holton, 15, who committed suicide this year after friends video recorded her in the shower and posted it on social media app Snapchat.
Similar things have happened at colleges and universities in recent years.
For example, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, leapt to his death after a roommate used a webcam to live broadcast Clementi on social media having sex in his dorm with another man.
The roommate, Dharun Ravi, served 20 days in jail on various charges and was ordered to pay $10,000 to a program to help victims of hate crimes. However, his conviction was overturned last month due to a change in state law.
Last year, Penn State banned Kappa Delta Rho fraternity for three years after it surfaced that members of the fraternity had been using an invitation-only Facebook page to post photos of nude women who were passed out.
Congresswoman Speier said the Internet has become a “new age sewage pipeline carrying the worst material imaginable in endless quantities.”
“As social media proliferates, so do the opportunities to destroy people’s lives,” Speier said at Friday’s discussion on The Hill. “Young people are committing suicide because of their images being distributed without their consent.”
While the majority of states have passed various types of anti-revenge porn laws, Speier said the “patchwork” of state laws — some of which only target those who are motivated by a desire to harass the victim — creates great uncertainty for victims.
“If passed, this bill will punish individuals and websites that knowingly post private, intimate materials while also providing a safe harbor for websites that don’t advertise or solicit such content,” Speier said.
Speier said her proposed revenge porn law has been reviewed by 12 constitutional scholars who have all refuted concerns that the law would violate free speech. Among the scholars who back the bill are University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks.
“A federal criminal law is necessary not only to provide a single, clear articulation of the relevant elements of the crime, but also to signal society’s acknowledgement and condemnation of this serious wrongdoing,” Franks, who helped draft the bill, has written.
Under the bill, perpetrators who post images of a person who is naked or engaged in sex could be fined or imprisoned for up to five years if they did so without the person’s consent.
Carrie Goldberg, a Brooklyn-based attorney who represents victims of revenge porn, said 90 percent of the victims are women and range in age from 13 to 65. She said having one’s naked images published online can do irreparable harm.
“At this point in time no one can get a job, date or even a roommate without being Googled,” Goldberg said. “How would you feel if the first five pages of your results were images of you fully exposed and images you never wanted anyone to see?”
Goldberg said revenge porn on campus is becoming more common and said her firm is handling one such case but that she could not disclose the particulars. She criticized authorities who handled the Penn State case because although Pennsylvania has a revenge porn law, it was not applied against the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity because of apparent lack of intent.
“They were just kind of trading baseball cards with their frat brothers,” Goldberg said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.