Politics & Government

Lawmakers push measure to make ‘revenge porn’ a federal crime

Just days after a member of Congress had a explicit photo released on the internet by an anonymous Twitter user, congressional lawmakers began a strong push to make “revenge porn” or “sextortion” a federal crime.

Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said he shared a sexually explicit video and text messages with a woman he was seeing after he separated from his second wife. An image from that video of a naked Barton, now 68, appeared on the internet last week, becoming the talk of his hometown and spurring debate over criminal intent.

Tuesday, Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said they’d sponsor the new legislation to make “revenge porn” a federal crime. The bill is similar to a bill introduced last year by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. Speier introduced the bill in the House again Tuesday.

Burr told McClatchy he expects the proposal to pass easily through the Senate with support from both parties, though Congressional schedule would likely push the vote into early next year. Klobuchar is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill’s first stop.

Barton last week apologized for the leaked video, saying he should have exercised better judgment. He also suggested he’d been the victim of a crime: Revenge porn, which is illegal under Texas’s law, but not federal law.

Barton sent the video to a woman who he saw over the span of several years. In a recorded phone conversation that the woman gave to the Washington Post, Barton asked her not to use the video to hurt his career. She said she had no intention of doing so, but the video surfaced last week from an anonymous Twitter account.

Barton took the incident to the U.S. Capitol Police, a law enforcement agency designed to protect members of Congress, staff and visitors at the U.S. Capitol. The agency also protects lawmakers back home in their districts, and investigates threats made against them. It has more than 2,100 employees, and operates with an annual budget of $375 million.

Barton said U.S. Capitol Police offered to look into the leak, but neither the U.S. Capitol Police nor Barton’s office responded to multiple requests for comment on whether an investigation was underway. A crisis communications firm Barton hired after the incident also did not respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this month, Barton announced plans to seek an 18th term in Congress. But after the video surfaced, he said he would reconsider his political future. Barton has not yet filed for the race, and has until Dec. 11 to do so.

"I am talking to a number of people, all of whom I have faith in, and am deciding how to respond, quite frankly,” Barton told the Texas Tribune last week.

Citing disappointment over the incident, local GOP leaders met with the Congressman Monday night to urge him not to run for reelection.

Barton has multiple Democratic challengers who have been raising money and attention for the race based in the days following the leak. A fellow Republican, former U.S. Navy fighter pilot Jake Ellzey, filed for the race Tuesday. Ellzey ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for a Texas House seat in 2014.

Thirty-eight states and D.C. have laws against distributing revenge porn. The proposed federal legislation would make it “unlawful to knowingly distribute a private, visual depiction of an individual’s intimate parts or of an individual engaging in sexually explicit conduct, with reckless disregard for the individual’s lack of consent to the distribution, and for other purposes.”

North Carolina passed legislation outlawing “revenge porn” in 2015 and updated the provision in 2017. The state law makes it illegal to post nude photos online without the consent of the victim.

Texas also put an anti-revenge porn law into effect in 2015, making it a misdemeanor to post intimate photos that were shared with the expectation that they remain private.

The federal legislation would establish federal criminal liability for people who share private, explicit images without consent. In order to prosecute someone under the proposed law, officials would have to prove the defendant was aware of a substantial risk that the victim expected the image would remain private and that sharing could cause harm to the victim.

“Perpetrators of exploitation who seek to humiliate and shame their victims must be held accountable,” said Harris, the former attorney general of California who prosecuted operators of “revenge porn” sites. “It is long past time for the federal government to take action to give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on these crimes.”

The bill provides up to five years in prison and/or unspecified fines.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC

This PSA on sextortion warns that anything private shared online could be used against you. If someone demands sexual images from you, stop immediately and report it. For more information, visit ProjectSafeChildhood.gov