Metro

Governor Baker files bill targeting ‘revenge porn’ and sexting

Proposed legislation backed by Governor Charlie Baker addresses so-called revenge porn as well as teen “sexting,” or sending explicit photos to each other.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Proposed legislation backed by Governor Charlie Baker addresses so-called revenge porn as well as teen “sexting,” or sending explicit photos to each other.

Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday threw his support behind a bill aimed at penalizing perpetrators of revenge porn, the posting of explicit pictures online with the express purpose of getting back at someone.

Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito joined Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley in promoting legislation the governor filed Tuesday that also tackles the issue of so-called sexting among teenagers.

Officials said they believe harsher penalties will go a long way to protecting victims from cyber-bullying by vengeful former lovers.

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“We here in Massachusetts not only don’t tolerate this type of behavior, [we] believe it is in many cases worthy of a felony conviction or certainly a felony charge,” the governor said about revenge porn.

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Speaking to reporters at Boston Latin Academy in Dorchester, officials said the bill is necessary because the law has not kept up with the new ways that people use technology and social media.

“All too often technology outpaces the law’s ability to protect individuals and address harmful behavior,” Conley said.

The primary victims of such crimes are girls and women, said Julia Tracy, a freshman at Northeastern University who graduated last year from Winthrop High School and was a member of a task force Conley convened to address this problem.

Tracy and other students joined local police chiefs and several other district attorneys from across the state who also support the measure.

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The bill would create a felony for revenge porn that carries up to five years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. The bill includes the same penalties for someone who threatens to post revenge porn, according to a copy of the legislation provided by the governor’s office.

The bill also aims to amend the law on teenagers who send explicit photos of each other over the Internet or their phones.

School police officers have complained that, in those instances, their only option for pressing charges is to levy a very serious child pornography count against the student.

Instead, this bill would create a misdemeanor for such instances, and it calls for children who might be charged with distributing child pornography to be instead placed in an educational diversion program.

The bill also calls for schools to provide more education about the risks of distributing sexually explicit photographs as it relates to cyber-bullying.

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As for revenge porn, current law punishes nonconsensual recording of sexually explicit images, but it does not address a situation in which a consensual photo is posted online without the subject’s consent.

This could happen, for example, if a person wanted to take revenge on a former partner.

About 30 other states have passed similar laws, according to the governor, who said Massachusetts should keep pace with the rest of the country. But some of those statutes have been challenged.

Last month, the Vermont Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of that state’s new revenge porn law on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment.

Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it all depends on how such laws are written.

“The ACLU cares about privacy, we care about freedom of expression, and we care about protecting women from threats and harassment, and you can balance all three of those interests and concerns in a way that doesn’t violate the First Amendment, but it will depend on how the law is written,” she said.

Wunsch said there are other ways to pursue such crimes, such as with civil suits and criminal laws about extortion and harassment.

About the sexting portion of Baker’s bill, Wunsch said it is generally not a good idea to charge teenagers with crimes.

“It may be an improvement to make it a misdemeanor,” according to Wunsch. “However, generally it’s a bad idea to pursue kids criminally at all.”

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.