from the saving-rights,-making-enemies dept
In an unexpected turn of events, Rhode Island's governor has chosen the First Amendment over the hot button issue of revenge porn. One of several bad bills recently introduced by legislators (the others being a dreadful CFAA clone and badly-written "cybercrime" bill) is dead, killed by a politician who actually realized the potential damage to free speech it might have caused.
In her veto message signed late Monday night, [Governor Gina] Raimondo said: "The bill is apparently intended to curb the dissemination of private sexual material over the internet, but its sweep is much broader. It could also cover works of art that depict the human body. And unlike virtually all other similar state statutes, H7537 does not include basic safeguards such as the requirement that 'intent to harass' be demonstrated for conduct to be criminal."
"The breadth and lack of clarity may have a chilling effect on free speech," she wrote. "The right course of action is to follow the example of other states, and craft a more carefully worded law that specifically addresses the problem of revenge porn, without implicating other types of constitutionally protected speech."
The bill, as many of them are, was introduced in a misguided attempt to solve a problem by bashing away at it with the largest legislative hammer. Almost everyone agrees revenge porn is terrible, but only a small minority of those seem interested in handling the issue with the finesse it demands. Instead of narrowly-crafted bills, we get broadly-worded bluster that threatens to swallow up protected speech along with the revenge porn the bills so poorly target.
This veto is unusual, because there's hardly anything more damaging to a political career than refusing to accept "do something" as an answer -- especially when opposing such a bill tends to get a person painted as sympathetic to repulsive humans who traffic in other people's misery.
But wanting to do something, and doing something that isn’t unconstitutional, are different things. Much as the main movers against revenge porn have shamelessly “lied and denied” about the constitutionality of criminalizing protected speech, and state legislatures have enacted laws following their model. Thus far, only one has been tested, in Arizona, and it failed miserably.
Governor Raimondo has the honor of the first veto, which is something to be quite proud of. No one gives a prize for respecting the Constitution anymore, particularly in the face of sad tears and stories of woe.
That's the problem with issues like these: the forward motion is usually propelled by emotion... and little else. All too often, legislators are somewhat aware of the constitutional issues, but somehow rationalize the damage away as being minimal compared to the evil being fought.
The answer to the revenge porn problem isn't simple. On the plus side, it's evident from multiple prosecutions of revenge porn site owners that existent laws are capable of handling the problem. In some cases, the approach is indirect, but it still achieves the same ends. People who profit from revenge porn tend to violate other laws, rather than limit their actions to this particular legal gray area.
But it's a bold move for a governor to step up and shut down a bad bill, rather than allow the courts to do her work for her. For that, Governor Raimondo should be applauded, especially as she's already being portrayed as sympathetic to revenge porn site operators, rather than to everyone else whose free speech would have been negatively affected by the legislation.