In our opinion: Revenge porn

Published: Friday, Sept. 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Internet has opened a Pandora's box filled with conflicts between individual privacy and free speech, the latest coming as a result of a particularly sleazy practice known as "revenge porn." State governments are starting to look for ways to punish people who post compromising photographs online as a way to wreak vengeance on a former spouse or lover.

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The Internet has opened a Pandora's box filled with conflicts between individual privacy and free speech, the latest coming as a result of a particularly sleazy practice known as "revenge porn." State governments are starting to look for ways to punish people who post compromising photographs online as a way to wreak vengeance on a former spouse or lover.

States on the forefront of the movement, particularly California, have found the road to regulating such behavior is strewn with legal potholes. Nevertheless, efforts to curb the practice should move forward, and the issue is worthy of consideration by the Utah Legislature when it convenes in January.

Of course, the problem wouldn't exist if people adhered to traditional tenets of modesty and resisted the temptation to pose for compromising photographs they intended for the eyes of one person only. These become painfully and criminally damaging when put online for strangers to peruse worldwide. Once distributed, they cannot be retrieved. Instead, they proliferate in boundless ways, leading to permanent and repeated violations of the subject's dignity and privacy.

Using the Internet as a tool of reprisal is repugnant behavior, but it is apparently becoming commonplace, according to experts who have chronicled a vast and growing number of online examples.

Fashioning a law to prosecute people who post such photos is proving difficult. A measure before the California Assembly would make it a crime to distribute images "…with the intent to cause serious emotional distress, and the other person suffers serious emotional distress." Intent, however, is tricky to prove, and in such a prosecution, a defendant could argue he or she did it with other intentions. And one can only imagine the legal gymnastics that would ensue when lawyers parse the term "serious emotional distress."

In addition, such laws face automatic First Amendment hurdles. In Utah, lawmakers encountered similar obstacles while trying to deal with the problem of "sexting," the practice of sending sexually explicit messages by email or text. Laws allow for prosecution of sexting under child pornography statutes, which can be a harsh remedy for behavior that often results from a complete lack of judgment and an immature understanding of how the world works. But the advent of "revenge porn" is clearly proving that taking or posing for lewd pictures can lead to something far from harmless.

That's why educators, counselors and child psychologists are right to lobby for more efforts to educate teenagers about the perils of such sordid use of technology. While kids may not know better, adults should.

In the case of "revenge porn," the victims share in complicity for creating the weapons of their own distress. Nevertheless, it should be against the law to intentionally hurt someone by whatever means. Legislative bodies should explore ways to address the problem, but in the end the best defense is a healthy dose of common sense that should prompt someone inclined to pose for risqué pictures to think twice.

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