PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Weighing in on a controversial “revenge porn” bill before the Rhode Island General Assembly, The Rutherford Institute has joined with other civil liberties groups in warning legislators that the proposed law, H-7537, is so overly broad and vague that it could do more harm than good by criminalizing legitimate First Amendment activities aimed at holding government officials accountable for wrongdoing. Specifically, Institute attorneys point out that the legislation criminalizes the dissemination of images that have political and social importance but do not constitute “revenge porn” (such as the Abu Ghraib photographs), and endangers the right of citizens to confidently expose misconduct by representatives that might involve the dissemination of explicit material (such as government officials engaging in sexting).
“While the government’s motives appear to be well-meaning, this legislation is so vague and overly broad that it could do more harm than good,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “If the Rhode Island General Assembly wishes to discourage ‘revenge porn,’ it must do so in a manner that does not run afoul of the Constitution.”
As governing bodies attempt to formulate legislative responses to a changing technological environment, laws criminalizing “revenge porn” are in vogue. Already, 34 states and the District of Columbia have adopted “revenge porn” laws, and six more states are currently working to pass statutes criminalizing “revenge porn.” The penalties vary, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. However, as attorneys for The Rutherford Institute point out in their letter to the Rhode Island House of Representatives, the challenge facing lawmakers is how to protect innocent victims from vindictive, harmful behavior, while not treading upon protected political or social expression. By seeking to come down hard upon the practice of “revenge porn,” some states risk infringing upon the First Amendment by making sweeping prohibitions, with broad and vague language that leaves little room for the publication of politically and socially important expression. In weighing in on Rhode Island’s “revenge porn” bill, H-7537, Rutherford Institute attorneys warn that the statutory language is unclear, not even requiring proof of harm or intent to harm, in order to convict someone of engaging in “revenge porn.” The vagueness of the exemption would also endanger the right of citizens to expose official misconduct by prohibiting the dissemination of important newsworthy and political images. Specifically, Institute attorneys point out that the proposed legislation is unclear in its scope, the legislation’s “public concern” exemption is entirely too indefinite to comply with First Amendment principles governing the criminalization of expression, the vagueness of the “public concern” exemption endangers the right of citizens to confidently expose misconduct by representatives that might involve the dissemination of explicit material, and the proposed legislation is far too broad and makes criminal the dissemination of images that have political and social importance but do not constitute “revenge porn.”