Missoula legislator’s bill would criminalize revenge porn, image abuse

State Rep. Marilyn Ryan, D-Missoula

A Missoula legislator is pushing to pass a bill during the 2019 Montana Legislature that would criminalize the distribution of naked photos of another person without their consent.

A  2017 bill that aimed to do the same failed.

Rep. Marilyn Ryan, D-Missoula, is sponsoring House Bill 192, which adds specific clauses to the state’s privacy in communications statute that would make it a felony to publish or distribute printed or electronic images or films without the consent of the person depicted.

Montana is one of nine states that have no revenge porn or image abuse law. Ohio was the most recent state to add such a prohibition, in December 2018.

“It’s pretty cut and dried as to, if you distribute those without the person’s consent, then you’re guilty. We don’t have to show that you also intended to cause fear in them or anything like that. Just the fact that you did it on purpose is enough,” said Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, and victim’s rights attorney who worked on the bill.

The bill doesn’t require a victim to prove an intent to harm, since Montana law doesn’t require it across the board. Instead, it says that a person must “knowingly or purposely” distribute the photos.

The statute of limitations requires the distribution of the photos to be within the past two or three years, Dudik said.

The law would not apply to disclosures made in the public interest related to law enforcement, criminal or news reporting, legal proceedings or medical treatment.

“In Montana law, we prove their actions, and in doing that, we prove the thoughts behind it. So this is consistent in the way Montana law is written,” Dudik said.

The 2017 bill’s failure came after Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, told the committee that “selfie senders” need to be aware of their actions and take responsibility for what is posted and distributed online or to others.

Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula

Ryan said that times have changed, and a law that addresses this is necessary.

“There’s a different code of how you should act today. I’m not going to judge it. I grew up in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, [and] there was a different code with my parents, but that’s life. But it’s the violation of your privacy, the loss of your dignity, those are, to me, cornerstone issues for our society,” Ryan said.

Retired Missoula resident and victim Kristine Hamill is eager for the bill to become law, and plans to testify during a public hearing before the House Judiciary Committee at 8 a.m. on Jan. 24 in Room 137 of the Capitol.

Before Hamill and her husband of 12 years separated, he distributed naked and sexualized photos of her without her consent or knowledge to numerous websites and via email.

She was able to get a permanent order of protection and was granted a forensic review of the laptop where the images were found, according to court documents.

Now she’s an activist for the issue, and wants the law to protect others like her in the future. When she testifies, two other Missoula residents plan to tell their stories as well.

“You can see that there are real victims and how it destroys their entire lives,” Hamill said

If the bill passes, she plans to work with schools to add information about revenge porn to the sex education curriculum.

“I will continue to educate. I think this needs to be in the high schools and we need to have a discussion on image abuse and revenge porn. We need to start young, to teach our children that if you share these things, this is what can happen,” she said.

As the bill goes through the legislation process, Dudik said she hopes that legislators will see the legislation as a necessary change to the existing statute.

“I’m hopeful that our Legislature this time will understand that this isn’t a game, that this detrimentally impacts too many people’s lives and that people shouldn’t be allowed to act that way toward others and terrify them by the use of these images,” Dudik said. “So hopefully, Montana will get on board with other states that have made this a priority to protect people from this kind of crime.”