SALT LAKE CITY — A House committee gave a favorable recommendation Thursday to a bill looking to criminalize so-called “revenge porn.”

If HB71 becomes law, it would modify Utah's criminal code to make it a third-degree felony to distribute “intimate images” without the subject’s consent. The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee sent the bill to the full House with a 6-1 vote.

The bill addresses nonconsensual pornography, which is commonly referred to as revenge porn — the publication of explicit photos and videos without the permission from the subject, usually by a previous significant other, with the intent to cause emotional distress or harm.

It would also include sexually explicit images taken without the subject's knowledge. But the bill would not apply in certain situations, such as law enforcement functions and medical procedures.

While nonconsensual pornography can affect both sexes, the victims primarily are women and girls. And they can suffer serious consequences because of that victimization, said bill sponsor Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City.

"Families and lives have been destroyed. Victims are harassed. They have to change schools, they lose their jobs. Some have committed suicide," Poulson said.

One case of revenge porn is currently being prosecuted in Davis County, she said. Poulson read aloud a letter written by a victim who read a story about the bill in the Deseret News.

"I was a victim of revenge porn when I was 19-years-old in college, and it nearly destroyed me. And there was no law to keep the person from continuing to assault me. … I live in fear, 12 years later, that this crazy, psychotic predator … might pop up and continue to get away with a crime he has yet to be punished for," Poulson read from the letter.

Poulson and Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, had simultaneously been working on similar bills. When they realized it, they decided to work together and created a substitution to replace Poulson's original bill.

"Eat your heart out, Congress. Bipartisanship is possible," Poulson quipped before getting down to business.

Hall, the bill's co-sponsor, addressed potential concerns about free speech and said legislative research staff hadn't attached any notes of constitutional concern. He said the substitute bill is more specific than the original, making it capable of withstanding a constitutionality attack.

Trace Downey, a law student at the University of Utah, said the behavior cannot be tolerated but called the bill is flawed. Downey said the degree of felony is too severe, and he also raised First Amendment concerns.

"The First Amendment does not serve as a blanket protection for malicious and harmful conduct simply because such conduct may have an expressive dimension," Hall said.

He added that there's an "expectation of privacy," similar to a person giving a credit card to a waiter. The problem, Hall said, is when it's used in a way it's not intended.

"We don't want to blame the victim," Hall said.

Both Poulson and Hall said the only thing victims of revenge porn can do right now is file a civil suit, which is expensive, time-consuming and often allows for further victimization.

"The current criminal laws are not enough," Hall said.

Voyeurism statutes only protect people who didn't give consent for the image creation, he said. Harassment statute requires a large pattern of conduct, and manufacturing pornography laws also may apply to the victim, Hall said.

When challenged to make the offense a class A misdemeanor instead of a third-degree felony, Poulson said she's investigated similar bills in other states and has found that the statute needs to have enough teeth to be a deterrent.

Comment on this story

"I know this bill will make someone think before they click … and be a deterrent," said Brandy Farmer, a domestic violence prevention specialist.

Farmer called revenge porn a "weapon." She said victims have lost jobs, been turned away from loved ones and even sought to take their own lives because they are "followed by that eternal whisper behind their backs."

Email: madbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: madeleine6