Even 'End Revenge Porn' Bill Struggles

Chris Steller

If you're looking for an unassailable slogan to help your legislation on its way to easy passage, you'd think something like "End Revenge Porn" might do the job.

But let the experience of Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, and his "End Revenge Porn" bill be a lesson that a slogan that's hard to argue with isn't necessarily enough to avoid a rocky road.

And that can be true even if you embark on an eight-month legislation-by-stakeholder group effort to fix a criminal defamation law struck down by a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling in a highly publicized case.

Lesch's House File 2741, which would put civil and criminal penalties on the practice known as revenge porn, cleared a couple hurdles in the House this week and appears poised to have a shot, but no assurances of success, in the Senate next week.

It all started with the 2014 conviction of Timothy Robert Turner, formerly of Mora, by the Isanti County District Court. Turner, 50, was convicted for posting on Craigslist the phone numbers and names of his ex-girlfriend and her daughter, 17, as part of a sexually explicit advertisement that drew obscene responses.

Last May, the Court of Appeals overturned Turner's conviction and struck down Minnesota's criminal defamation law, calling it too broad and unconstitutional.

The next day, Lesch pledged to form a group to find a way to ban the kind of retaliatory online activity of which the Isanti County case was just one example.

By the end of June, the End Revenge Porn Working Group was meeting. The group was composed of attorneys, lawmakers and free speech advocates including national figures in the "End Revenge Porn" campaign, which can claim success in seeing laws passed in more than a dozen states.

The group continued meeting through the interim, discussing what Lesch says were "heady legal discussions," right up to the weeks before the Legislature reconvened on March 8. The bill, he said, has evolved quite a bit. We shaved the edges off of it. We were narrowing it down to addressing specifically the situation we want, not "gill netting."

Lesch's bill still nearly foundered without a committee hearing in the House before the first committee deadline on April 1.

Lesch said he spent weeks begging Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who chairs the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, for a hearing.=>

That finally happened March 29. But for all the groundwork over the months of the interim, there were surprises at the hearing.=>=>

First came emotional testimony from a 21-year-old woman who described a revenge porn threat that happened two weeks earlier. An ex-boyfriend told her he was glad he still had a sex tape he had made (without her knowledge at the time), which she thought had been deleted. Lesch said in an interview that he had met her for the first time just before the hearing, after getting a call out of the blue from her current boyfriend about her situation.=>=>

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which Lesch said had participated in the End Revenge Porn working group meetings, testified against the bill. ACLU-MN Legal Director Teresa Nelson told the committee she feared the bill as written would draw successful legal challenges on free-speech grounds. At the hearing Lesch said he felt ambushed and last Thursday admitted to feeling "pissed."=>=>

Still, Cornish's committee sent the bill to the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, chaired by Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, where the bill got a favorable reception two days later. The panel voted to send the bill, in the form it took in Lesch's latest delete all amendment, to the House floor for action.=>=>

Only on the day between the two House committee hearings did HF 2741 gain its first co-author, Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis. That was a function, Lesch said, of his delay in filing the bill while he incorporated comments from members of the working group after their last meeting in February. "I didn't do the usual shopping of it for co-authors," he said.=>=>

Lesch said he expects others to join as co-authors, including Republicans, calling Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, an ally on the issue. Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, a member of Scott's committee and the DFL Lead on Cornish's committee, introduced two related bills last year (HF 241 and HF 537), neither of which got a hearing.=>=>

It was only after the second House hearing in Scott's committee, with an April 8 deadline looming for favorable action in the Senate, when Lesch got word that "End Revenge Porn" might gain an agenda slot with the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. Even so, approval by the committee is still an open question, Lesch acknowledged.=>=>

It may have helped, Lesch said, that he'd mentioned his hope for a hearing to Latz earlier, and that Latz's legislative assistant previously served in that role for Lesch.=>=>

Another factor that may bode well for success in the upper chamber: Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, is sponsor of the companion bill, Senate File 2713, and vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Co-authors include Senator Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, who also serve as members of Latz's committee.=>=>=>

Lesch said he understands the complexity of legislation like his with privacy, safety and free speech concerns, as well as civil and criminal aspects can make committee chairs leery. He'd also heard that a lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America had been talking to committee chairs about his bill, but added that he didn=92t know if that would have hindered its progress.=>=>=>

Asked to comment on Lesch's bill Thursday, the MPAA issued a statement: "The MPAA opposes online harassment in all forms. While we agree with the aims of HF 2741's sponsors, we are concerned that the current version of the bill is written so broadly that it could have a chilling effect on mainstream and constitutionally-protected speech, such as legitimate news, commentary, and matters of historical interest. We believe it is necessary to include an intent to harass requirement in the definition of the crime, as many other states have done in legislation designed to combat online harassment. This gives the law enforcement community the necessary tools to prosecute these crimes, while also ensuring that the bill can survive First Amendment scrutiny."=>=>=>

Lesch, who has a habit of expressing concern about the next step for his bill, did so again Thursday as he pondered its chances to make it past April 8. "You never can be sure," he said.=>=>=>

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