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A.G. candidates try to outdo each other on revenge-porn bills

Two state delegates battling for the Democratic nomination for Maryland attorney general will duel in Annapolis next year over how best to deal with revenge porn.

Dels. Jon Cardin of Baltimore County and Bill Frick from Montgomery County both plan to introduce bills focusing on the nonconsensual posting online of intimate and sometimes sexually graphic photographs and videos.

In addition to competing with their bills and political campaigns, the pair also will have to contend with civil libertarians who say efforts to criminalize displays of sexual behavior are fraught with constitutional pitfalls.

“We have to be really careful about criminalizing images,” said Toni Holness, a public policy associate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Advocates on both sides of the issue agree that revenge porn is becoming a serious problem. In 2006, an estimated 850,000 people claimed to suffer through some form of stalking involving a significant online component, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Annmarie Chiarini said she was victimized in 2010 and 2011 by a man with whom she had been in a relationship. That man posted photos of Chiarini online and emailed them to her friends and her boss. He also attempted to sell a disc of images on an online auction site. When she reported his actions to Maryland State Police, she was told that no law had been broken.

Chiarini said she acted quickly “to put a lid on it” but still has lingering fears that something will surface.

“I feel safer, but sometimes I wake up and think, ‘Maybe I should Google myself today,’” Chiarini said.

Cardin said his effort is focused on protecting teens and women from “sexual predators” and online bullying and humiliation that can lead to stalking, emotional distress and suicide.

“There is a 1-in-20 chance that your daughter is going to find her images on the Internet,” Cardin said.

California’s approach

Two states have laws dealing with the posting of intimate photos online.

This month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a measure that imposes a six-month jail sentence and fine of $1,000 for the nonconsensual posting of sexually explicit images.

New Jersey passed a law in 2004 that prohibits the dissemination of sexually explicit photos and video without the consent of both partners.

Lawmakers in New York introduced a bill this month that they hope will address the issue in that state.

Cardin said his interest in the subject grew out of a discussion about finding some “next-generation issues” and his work last year on cyberbullying legislation.

Cardin’s two-page bill would make it a felony to knowingly publish online intimate pictures or video of an identifiable person without that person’s consent. If passed by the General Assembly, the crime would be punishable by up to five years in jail and a $25,000 fine.

“This legislation will send a strong message that we will go after sexual predators wherever they exist,” Cardin said.

Frick said his as-yet undrafted bill will be modeled after the California law, which makes the practice of distributing sexually explicit images without consent punishable by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Frick became interested in the issue this year after a female constituent told him of how a person she had been involved with posted intimate pictures of her along with her name and information about where she lived.

“When you Google this woman, one of the things that comes up is this intimate photo,” Frick said. “This was done with the intent to inflict pain and emotional harm.”

Constitutional question

Civil libertarians say they understand the concerns expressed by the delegates and their constituents, but they caution that the issue raises a number of concerns, including whether such laws are constitutional.

Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said the bill she helped Cardin draft “is narrowly tailored” and does not violate the Constitution.

“We tend to think of the First Amendment as some kind of trump card that protects all speech,” Citron said. “These images are purely prurient. There is nothing of value in them.”

The ACLU is not taking a position on either bill. Holness said the group would prefer no criminal penalty at all but probably would not oppose a bill similar to California’s new law. She is also working with Sen. Jaime Raskin, D-Montgomery County, on another related bill, but details of that legislation were not available.

Holness said the civil-liberties group is working to encourage Maryland lawmakers to consider strengthening civil penalties rather than creating a new criminal law.

“Do we really want to criminalize an entire class of high school students?” Holness said.