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In this day and age, when anyone and seemingly everyone has the ability to take photos and video and share them with the entire world, it’s sometimes difficult to determine just where to draw the line to protect privacy.

One place where it should not be difficult, however, is in the bedroom. Anyone who shares a nude photo of themselves, or a video depicting a sex act, with a loved one or close friend ought to have some basic assurance that those sensitive materials will not be distributed without their consent.

Montana’s legislators are being asked to make the distribution of such materials without consent — commonly called “revenge porn” — a crime punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500 for a first offense.

This week, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on House Bill 192, sponsored by Missoula Democrat Rep. Marilyn Ryan. The bill aims to amend the “Privacy in communications” section of Montana Code Annotated to prohibit the distribution of images in which a person is naked or shown performing a sex act, if the person depicted has not consented to sharing the images.

While it’s hard to believe anyone could oppose such level-headed legislation, a similar bill proposed in the previous legislative session did in fact die after Kalispell Republican Sen. Keith Regier pushed for an amendment essentially gutting the law, saying that “selfie senders” needed to accept “personal responsibility.”

“There was some concern in committee over a naive underage person being taken advantage of as well, but even they need to know that there are consequences for their actions,” the Montana Kaimin quoted Regier arguing to the Senate during the bill’s second reading.

Carried by Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, the 2017 bill sailed through the House on a vote of 95-5, only to fail on its third reading in the Senate after it was amended.

Perhaps now, with a little more information and a little more familiarity with modern technology, legislators will see the clear need to better protect Montanans’ privacy.

Revenge porn is not confined to any one age or gender, but it’s often young women who are bullied and threatened through the widespread release of these images. A recent study by the Data and Society Research Institute found that “One in 25 Americans has been a victim of threats or posts of nearly nude or nude images without their permission.” For women under the age of 30, the incidence rate jumps to one in 10.

Recognizing this growing problem, 41 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws protecting victims of revenge porn and providing a path for law enforcement to hold offenders accountable. Montana’s law makes reasonable exceptions for images shared for legitimate purposes by law enforcement agents, reporters, and legal or medical professionals.

At Monday’s hearing, representatives heard from victims, victim advocates and from a representative of the ACLU of Montana, who suggested slight amendments concerning intent and image content. We agree that it would be reasonable to add a provision clarifying that images must be identifiable as a specific person. However, Montana should not require an intent to harm as a condition of violating this law; it doesn’t matter whether the intent of the distributor is to harm or merely to amuse — the damage is done either way.

The bottom line is that once these images are online they are virtually impossible to erase, and the severity of the punishment for permanently destroying someone’s privacy should reflect that. Hopefully, Montana’s lawmakers will recognize these realities of the 21st century, and update our laws accordingly.

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The Missoulian

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