June 29, 2022

Representative Steven Howitt supports bill targeting unlawful distribution of explicit images

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Boston – State Representative Steven Howitt (R-Seekonk) recently supported legislation to crack down on the unauthorized distribution of sexually explicit images or videos via text messaging and online postings.

House Bill 4498, An Act relative to transmitting indecent visual depictions by teens and the unlawful distribution of explicit images, was engrossed by the House of Representatives on a vote of 154-0 on May 26. The bill provides for an educational diversion program for minors who engage in sexting and imposes criminal charges for so-called revenge porn.

Representative Howitt said the House bill requires the Attorney General to work with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop and implement an educational diversion program for teenagers charged with sexting, providing an alternative punishment for minors who could otherwise be charged with felony possession of child pornography and giving them a better understanding of the consequences of their actions. The bill also encourages school districts to incorporate aspects of this program as a learning tool for students.

House Bill 4498 also establishes penalties for minors under the age of 18 who engage in sexting and are not referred to an educational diversion program. The penalties would include commitment to the Department of Youth Services for up to six months, a fine of between $50 and $500, or both, but would not require the minor to register as a sex offender.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 26 states currently have laws against sexting, with 12 of those states opting for a diversion program rather than imposing a criminal penalty.

Representative Howitt noted that House Bill 4498 also increases the minimum fine for criminal harassment from $1,000 to $5,000 as part of an effort to respond more forcefully to cases of revenge porn, which typically involve individuals distributing or posting sexually explicit photos of their ex-spouse or ex-partner without their permission.

Under the House proposal, individuals who knowingly distribute sexually explicit visual materials of someone without their consent – with the intent to harm, harass, intimidate, threaten, coerce or cause emotional distress, or with “reckless disregard” for the other person’s reasonable expectation the materials would remain private – would be guilty of criminal harassment. This crime would be punishable by imprisonment in a House of Correction for not more than 2 ½ years, by a fine of not more than $10,000, or by both a fine and imprisonment.

Representative Howitt noted the penalties for criminal harassment would increase for a second or subsequent offense. The enhanced penalties would include imprisonment for not more than 2 ½ years in a House of Correction or in a state prison for not more than 10 years, a fine of up to $15,000, or both.

Massachusetts is currently one of only two states that do not have specific laws against revenge porn, the other being South Carolina. Representative Howitt noted that closing this loophole has been a priority for Governor Charlie Baker, who filed legislation to protect victims in 2017, 2019 and again in 2021.

House Bill 4498 now moves to the Senate for its consideration.

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