Vermont lawmakers are considering creating criminal penalties for people who post private, explicit pictures or video of someone else without their consent. This week, a proposal nicknamed the "revenge porn bill" passed the Vermont House of Representatives by a unanimous voice vote.
"It is high stakes," said Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, describing the potential impacts of sharing racy images of a former friend, lover or spouse as a way to humiliate, intimidate, make money or seek vengeance on them. "Some people have tried to commit suicide, they've lost their job, they've had to drop out of school, they've had to change their name."
Rachelson said more than a dozen other states, including New York and California, already have rules about this on the books. In Vermont, potential penalties would range from monetary fines to prison terms, depending on the severity of the act of image-sharing, and intent behind it.
But in other places where it's been brought up, including Connecticut, the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concerns. In Connecticut last year, the ACLU said that state's bill was certainly well-intentioned, but was written too loosely, such that it could've violated free speech protections.
The Associated Press reported that Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the ACLU, maintains civil courts, rather than criminal proceedings, would be a better avenue for victims to seek justice.
"The ACLU recognizes the need to protect people from harm," Gilbert wrote in an email to the AP. "But we believe that harm must be demonstrated, and intent to harm be shown, and then a civil remedy--a lawsuit--sought. Actions that may not have resulted in harm, and may not have been intended, shouldn't lead to jail terms."
The issue of non-consensual release of sexually-charged images came up this week at Penn State, where a fraternity allegedly maintained a secret Facebook page where members shared photos taken at the frat house of naked and semi-nude women. Penn State is considering a re-evaluation of Greek life in the wake of the situation, the AP reported.
"We don't lightly want to make new crimes," Rep. Rachelson told New England Cable News of Vermont's conversation about criminalizing the sharing of intimate photographs. "But this is an important one."
Auburn Watersong, the associate director of public policy for the Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, said her group is seeing more and more cases where social media or the internet are playing roles, with one person threatening to release photos or other deeply private info about the other.
"We have whole parts of our movement around technology and safety for victims," Watersong said. "It's an increasingly common tactic used by domestic abusers in abusive relationships to really keep power and control over their victims."
The next stop for the "revenge porn" bill is the Vermont State Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, the chairman of the committee, told necn the group will give the issue thoughtful consideration.