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Revenge Porn, Public Interest, and Free Speech

image of camera lens blended with an image of an eye

After resigning from office in 2019, former California Representative Katie Hill has been dragged back in the news. Hill’s lawsuits against the Daily Mail and RedState for publishing nonconsensual pornography were recently dismissed, and, to add insult to injury, she was ordered to pay more than $200,000 in defendants’ legal fees. Not only was Hill denied the possibility of being made whole, but was also forced to pay for the “privilege of them publishing nude photos … obtained from an abuser.”

How did we get here? Why is Katie Hill continuing to foot the bill for being made the target of “revenge porn”? How could the distribution of others’ private sexual images without their consent ever be protected by the First Amendment? Shouldn’t respect for individual privacy trump others’ interest in publicizing such intimate information?

In 2019, news broke that Hill and her then-husband had been involved in an improper relationship with a junior employee. Texts surfaced suggesting one of Hill’s campaign workers was not only engaged in a sexual relationship, but that she might also have been abused. It was further alleged that Hill was romantically involved with a congressional aide. RedState and the Daily Mail added fuel to the fire by publishing a number of suggestive and salacious photos. With rumors of a media trove containing hundreds of additional pictures and texts and a congressional probe just beginning, Hill resigned.

These revelations were no small thing; they suggested more than a mere lapse in judgment. The asymmetric power relation between the would-be congresswoman and a subordinate demonstrated a failure of responsibility and constituted an abuse of power. These charges must be taken seriously.

But the question of whether Hill’s relationship with a campaign staffer was improper (it was) should be kept separate from the question of whether the Daily Mail and RedState were acting in the public interest by choosing to publish nonconsensual pornography.

Judge Yolanda Orozco, who dismissed Hill’s case, claimed that the media outlets’ circulation of those nude photographs served a compelling public interest in questioning Hill’s “character, judgment and qualifications for her congressional position.” The electorate, she argued, deserved to bear witness to their representative’s apparent vices, and these news organizations were merely serving a democratic function in satisfying that need. The photos “allegedly depicted [Hill] with a campaign staffer whom she was alleged to have had a sexual affair with and appeared to show [Hill] using a then-illegal drug and displaying a tattoo that was controversial because it resembled a white supremacy symbol.” These, Orozco insists, are important details that the public has a right to know, or, at least, that news organizations have an overriding interest in disseminating.

This reasoning, however, appears to provide an incredibly broad read of what qualifies as a “matter of public concern.” Indeed, it seems to offer a blank check to any gossip or tabloid journalism that people might be able to put to good (political) use. (Consider, for example, the recently leaked video of New York City Council candidate Zack Weiner.) This justification does more than simply make the relaying of private information an important social good. Instead, Orozco’s position suggests that it is people’s feelings about the information, not the legal relevance of the information itself, which should determine the permissibility of sharing revenge porn. Whatever distaste or revulsion an image might provoke is enough to warrant overturning an individual’s right to legal protection against this kind of invasion of privacy, harassment, and sexual violence.

Further, according to Judge Orozco’s ruling, supplying a written description of the photos’ content instead of posting the photos themselves would fail to adequately capture or sufficiently communicate the level of depravity exhibited by the actual image. Instead, “the public should be permitted to determine the importance or relevance … for itself.” Again, this suggests that the ambiguity attending any likeness (inevitably lacking context) is just as important as (if not more important than) the cold, hard facts. A picture is worth a thousand words, and it’s meaning should lie with the beholder.

Note, however, that the photos’ publication is defended on the grounds that they provide evidence of Hill lacking moral fiber, not proof of the allegations leveled against her. The photograph which includes a staffer depicts a previous relationship that occurred during the campaign — a consensual relationship that was surely unethical, but not illegal, and to which Hill admitted — while the public value of the other photos centers on Hill holding a bong and sporting a questionable tattoo.

The publication of these photos, then, does little else but invite the viewer to pass judgment according to arbitrary standards of decency and decorum that amounts to nothing more than moralizing and slut-shaming. (Consider, for example, commentators’ judgments that the photos are revealing, “bespeaking a kind of hedonism that at least some voters may view as a character defect.”)

But our recognition of this unique kind of harm is precisely why revenge porn laws exist in the first place. Their purpose is to restrict the freedom of bad actors in recording and distributing salacious materials against their victims’ will. The publicizing of nonconsensual pornography weaponizes information by bringing public opinion down on the head of victims and branding them with an unerasable social stigma. Given the limitations to genuine redress, the law must have sufficient teeth to act as a deterrent capable of discouraging other would-be attackers. The law operates with the understanding that there is no putting the genie back in the bottle once a leak occurs.

The language of “revenge porn” is often criticized for focusing our attention on the perpetrator’s mindset as opposed to the damage done to victims. Surely, we shouldn’t concentrate our efforts on divining whether spite was the overwhelming motivation behind a perpetrator choosing to distribute illicit images. What matters is the unique kind of sexual violence that is being threatened. But, in this particular case, the context might prove important. First, the photos were taken without Hill’s knowledge (or consent) and distributed by a jilted and “abusive” ex-husband in the midst of a messy divorce. But the leak’s publication also looks to be the work of a concerted effort by Hill’s political opponents. As Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare notes, this may be the first known instance where a “politically aligned publication has published an explicit photo of an opposition politician for apparent political gain.” In fact, Politico reported that the person responsible for posting the photos used the same platform to publicly advocate for the Republican running for Hill’s vacated seat.

Despite these troubling circumstances, commentators have suggested that Hill simply “needs to take the L and move on.” Anyone who chooses to thrust herself into the public eye sacrifices the right to keep any detail of her private life hidden from view. Everything she does becomes a public concern. Ultimately, ours is a society that prioritizes the community’s right to know over individuals’ right not to disclose, privileges one’s freedom to do rather than others’ right to impede, and chafes much more at government overreach than at the paparazzi’s prying eyes. Still, it seems backwards to conclude those occupying the spotlight are less in need of this protection rather than more.

Should POC Forgive Kanye?

Drawing of Kanye West in profile

Kanye West is arguably one of the most polarizing figures in the 21st century. The “Ultralight Beam” rapper has made headlines for the better part of two decades and continues to impact the entertainment industry. Whether that impact is positive or negative is up for debate. In the past few years, West has been amid both political and entertainment controversy, drawing support and criticism alike. In the wake of a series of disputes with fellow rappers Jay-Z and Drake, Yeezy pledged his support to controversial President Donald Trump, and in an interview with TMZ, he said that slavery was a choice. West’s words were a gut-wrenching blow to fans, especially to his black and brown fanbase. How could someone, who for so long rapped about black life say something that ludicrously diminished an institution whose implications still impact the country today went against it? The “All Falls Down” rapper had gone from saying former President Bush didn’t care about black people, to rapping about “the white man” getting paid from black consumerism, to aligning himself with a president who has been accused and found guilty of racist and misogynistic commentary. But lately, Yeezy seems to have found himself paving a road for redemption. If redemption is indeed the case, the question that lingers is: should people of color forgive Kanye?

Everyone says they “miss the old Kanye.” They miss the rapper who would rock pink polos, have a starry-eyed teddy bear on the cover of all of his early discography, and heavily incorporate gospel music and themes in his music. The self proclaimed “Christian in Christian Dior,” West’s gospel/hip-hop smashup hit “Jesus Walks” is believed to be one of the many that changed his career. But since then, people would say they miss the old Kanye so much so that he even made a song about it.

Now, such sentiment might not have as much agency as it once had. During October of 2018, after a long stretch of supporting Trump, West vowed that he was done with politics. The statement was surely a sigh of relief to POC hip-hop fans who couldn’t completely condemn West but didn’t agree with his comments on slavery and support of Trump.

Then, in early 2019, Yeezy gathered fellow A-list celebrities in an undisclosed location for what has been dubbed “Sunday Service.” In videos covering the event, Ye is shown standing with a choir dressed in all white, performing old hits such as “Jesus Walks,” and even what appears to be new music. The response to Sunday Service has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so that West brought the performance to Coachella.

Only a few months later, Yeezy brought a rendition of Sunday Service to comedian Dave Chapelle’s Gem City Shine benefit for the lives lost after a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.

Shortly afterward, Ye brought the performance to his hometown of Chicago, performing with fellow South Side native Chance the Rapper. Tickets for the free event were put up and all of them were claimed. In a video that has now gone viral, Yeezy is shown telling a security guard “Watch this. This is my city.” Ye then makes his way through the crowd, parting starstruck attendees in a way that unintentionally but understandably has drawn biblical references. It just so happens, too, that many people in the crowd, awestruck by Kanye, were black and brown.

It seems as if Kanye is doing what everyone has wanted–make music and gear it towards something that is positive that everyone can enjoy. With that said, one might think that the information presented answers the question of whether POC should forgive Kanye or not. But the question is should Kanye be forgiven, not do they. If the question was framed as the latter, there would be no point in evaluating Ye’s actions. The buzz and support surrounding Sunday Service indicates that many people have willingly overlooked Kanye’s past comments and allegiances. But if you look online, you can still find photos of him in a MAGA hat cocked to the side. You can still find photos and videos of him standing with Donald Trump and screenshots of the tweets supporting the President. Is this something that POC should overlook? To some, the MAGA hat is a symbol of bigotry and misogyny. Some wearers of the hat are often seen condemning diverse religions such as Islam and berating diverse sexualities such as homosexuality. While these actions affect all U.S citizens, many POC identify with these groups. Kanye has stopped talking politics, but does that mean he’s changed his beliefs as well? Does he still have that hat in his closet?  Who’s to say Ye doesn’t still secretly meet with Donald Trump and talk shop? Or he makes outlandish comments about the current state of society that would infuriate the public? If that was the case, should POC still accept what Ye has been doing?

On Instagram, Yeezy’s wife Kim Kardashian teased the tracklist for his new album “Jesus is King.” With Sunday Service in full effect and the public in Ye’s favor, the album seems as if it will be reminiscent of his past work but with something new–not quite the backpack rapper with the pink polo, and not quite the controversial artist that people both love and hate, but something in between. And maybe that’s the best way to answer whether or not Kanye should be forgiven. Some will say his past actions should be overlooked and others will say he should still be condemned. All that can be done now is to watch and see how the rest of his legacy unfolds.

Donald Trump and Twitter: A Turbulent Relationship, Here to Stay

An image of Donald Trump making a speech.

Many people across the United States have joked about Donald Trump’s Twitter. He is often brunt and open about his opinions regarding everything from foreign policy to his own political agenda. To the average American, Twitter is a place to get one’s thoughts out there and state opinions. However, Trump is not the average American. He is the President of the United States. Trump’s Twitter has become an immature platform for him to say essentially whatever he wants. Some of his tweets are harmless and ego-inflating. Yet, other tweets present danger to the United States as a whole.

 

On January 2, Donald Trump tweeted, “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Despite the playful nature of the tweet, Donald Trump made a threat to use nuclear weapons on North Korea. At this time, North Korea has significantly developed its nuclear program and could eventually have the capability to send nuclear warheads as far as the continental US. Trump’s tweet seems to further destabilize an already unstable relationship.

 

Lawmakers, diplomats, and security experts alike have offered mixed opinions on the tweet and what it implies.Some have expressed their alarm and scorn at the immaturity and the danger of the president’s current approach to foreign policy with North Korea. That approach is characterized mainly by his tweets directed towards Kim Jong Un. In August  2017, a similar threat was made towards North Korea when Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” down upon the country if it were to put the United States in any sort of danger. Eliot A. Cohen, former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under President George W. Bush, said that he found the January tweet immature and dangerous for someone in such a position of power. He tweeted, “Spoken like a petulant ten-year-old. But one with nuclear weapons- for real- at his disposal. How responsible people around him, or supporting him, can dismiss this or laugh it off is beyond me.

Yet, Trump’s supporters and even some high level diplomats view the tweet positively as a message of strength. Ban Ki-moon, the former UN Secretary General called the tweets “a message from the international community.” In some ways, the tweet could be seen as a more aggressive tactic for relations with North Korea, as many presidents have seemed to take a passive role in response to the dictatorship.

Amidst the controversy surrounding Trump’s North Korea tweet (and many others), some have called for Twitter to ban Donald Trump. However, Twitter responded to the requests and said that they did not believe that it was beneficial to international discussions to ban political leaders from Twitter. In a way, banning public figures from Twitter silences them. So, in spite of the danger that Trump imposes by tweeting, his tweets are here to stay.

Despite the controversial tweets that spew from Donald Trump’s account daily, banning him from Twitter would be equally controversial. Twitter is right when it says that banning him would be silencing him. Like it or not, he is a powerful public figure and the President of the United States, and his opinions cannot be silenced. However offensive and dangerous his remarks may be, banning Donald Trump from Twitter would probably have negative implications.