By JORDAN SHAPIRO
(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo., AP) — Posting sexually explicit photos or video of a former lover online could land a person in prison, under a bill being considered by Missouri legislators.
The House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee held a hearing Thursday to consider the measure outlawing so-called revenge pornography, in which people post explicit material online to humiliate former romantic partners, often upending their lives in the process.
“If this happened to you, it would be devastating. It would be unbelievable,” said Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who sponsored the bill.
California and New Jersey have enacted such revenge porn laws and other states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, are also considering doing so. In December, a California man was hit with 31 felony charges for operating a revenge porn site.
Missouri’s bill would seek to prohibit someone from observing and then disclosing photos or videos of intimate sexual acts without the other person’s consent, or distributing explicit images in cases where there was an expectation of privacy. The images used can be obtained consensually during a relationship or can be stolen or hacked from online accounts.
Disclosing the explicit images would be considered a felony, punishable by up to four years in prison.
Over 70 percent of revenge porn victims are women, according to Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland who has written about the issue. She said people posting images of their ex-partners on revenge porn sites cause emotional harm to victims and can even cause them to lose their jobs.
“It is their way of punishing individuals to control them and devastate them because of a broken a relationship,” she said.
No one spoke in opposition to the bill during Thursday’s hearing, but a Democratic committee member questioned the measure’s criminal penalty. Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said there are existing civil remedies available to victims of revenge porn.
“Let’s not confuse the emotional ‘Oh my God that’s wrong, we should do something about it’ reaction with laws we already have on the books that address it,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposed California’s law last year, arguing that it might restrict free speech rights.
The legislation would exempt from prosecution law enforcement and medical personnel who use such photos as part of their duties. It also prohibits an individual from being charged if the person in the explicit image consents to public or commercial distribution.
Engler said his bill isn’t perfect and will need to be tweaked as it moves through the Legislature. Under the bill, any person could be charged with a felony for revenge porn, but Colleen Coble, the executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said that should be changed to only penalize adults, not teenagers who “weren’t thinking.”
The panel did not vote on Engler’s bill Thursday and offered no timetable for future action.