214 A.3d 791 (Vt. 2019), 16-253, State v. VanBuren

Docket Nº16-253
Citation214 A.3d 791, 2018 VT 95
Opinion JudgeROBINSON, J.
Party NameSTATE of Vermont v. Rebekah S. VANBUREN
AttorneyWilliam H. Sorrell, Attorney General, and Benjamin D. Battles, Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, and Erica Marthage, Bennington County State’s Attorney, and Alexander Burke, Deputy State’s Attorney, Bennington, for Plaintiff-Appellant. Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, and Dawn Matt...
Judge PanelPRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ. SKOGLUND, J., dissenting. ROBINSON, J. SKOGLUND, J., concurring.
Case DateJune 07, 2019
CourtSupreme Court of Vermont

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214 A.3d 791 (Vt. 2019)

2018 VT 95

STATE of Vermont

v.

Rebekah S. VANBUREN

No. 16-253

Supreme Court of Vermont

June 7, 2019

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Original Jurisdiction, Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Criminal Division, David A. Howard, J.

William H. Sorrell, Attorney General, and Benjamin D. Battles, Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, and Erica Marthage, Bennington County State’s Attorney, and Alexander Burke, Deputy State’s Attorney, Bennington, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, and Dawn Matthews, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

Bridget C. Asay of Donofrio Asay PLC, Montpelier, for Amici Curiae Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

OPINION

ROBINSON, J.

[¶ 1] This case raises a facial challenge to Vermont’s statute banning disclosure of nonconsensual pornography. 13 V.S.A. § 2606. We conclude that the statute is constitutional on its face and grant the State’s petition for extraordinary relief.

I. "Revenge-Porn," or Nonconsensual Pornography Generally

[¶ 2] "Revenge porn" is a popular label describing a subset of nonconsensual pornography published for vengeful purposes. "Nonconsensual pornography" may be defined generally as "distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent." D. Citron & M. Franks, Criminalizing Revenge Porn, 49 Wake Forest L.Rev. 345, 346 (2014). The term "nonconsensual pornography" encompasses "images originally obtained without consent (e.g., hidden recordings or recordings of sexual assaults) as well as images originally obtained with consent, usually within the context of a private or confidential

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relationship." Id.1 The nonconsensual dissemination of such intimate images— to a victim’s employer, coworkers, family members, friends, or even strangers— can cause "public degradation, social isolation, and professional humiliation for the victims." C. Alter, " ‘It’s Like Having an Incurable Disease’: Inside the Fight Against Revenge Porn," Time.com, http://time.com/4811561/revenge-porn/ [https://perma.cc/G9UP-L984]. The images may haunt victims throughout their lives. Id. (describing lasting effects of having one’s nude photos posted online and stating that "this type of cyber crime can leave a lasting digital stain, one that is nearly impossible to fully erase").

[¶ 3]. This problem is widespread, with one recent study finding that "4% of U.S. internet users— roughly 10.4 million Americans— have been threatened with or experienced the posting of explicit images without their consent." See Data & Society, "New Report Shows That 4% of U.S. Internet Users Have Been a Victim of ‘Revenge Porn,’ " (Dec. 13, 2016), https://datasociety.net/blog/2016/12/13/nonconsensual-image-sharing/ [https://perma.cc/26FC-937V]; see also C. Alter, supra (stating that "Facebook received more than 51,000 reports of revenge porn in January 2017 alone"). Revenge porn is overwhelmingly targeted at women. D. Citron & M. Franks, supra, at 353-54 (citing data that victims of revenge porn are overwhelmingly female).

[¶ 4]. Forty states, including Vermont, have enacted legislation to address this issue. See Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 40 States + DC Have Revenge Porn Laws, https://www.cybercivilrights.org/revenge-porn-laws/ [https://perma.cc/83UK-KKUS] (collecting state statutes). Federal legislation has also been proposed. See Intimate Privacy Protection Act of 2016, H.R. 5896, 114th Cong. (2016), https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/5896 [https://perma.cc/RM6V-865X] (proposing to "amend the federal criminal code to make it unlawful to knowingly distribute a photograph, film, or video of a person engaging in sexually explicit conduct or of a person’s naked genitals or post-pubescent female nipple with reckless disregard for the person’s lack of consent if the person is identifiable from the image itself or from information displayed in connection with the image," with certain exceptions); Servicemember Intimate Privacy Protection Act, H.R. 1588, 115th Cong. (2017), https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1588 [https://perma.cc/7ZBK-KT49] (proposing to "amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to prohibit the nonconsensual distribution of private sexual images").

II. Vermont’s Statute

[¶ 5] Vermont’s law, enacted in 2015, makes it a crime punishable by not more than two years’ imprisonment and a fine of $ 2,000 or both to "knowingly disclose a visual image of an identifiable person who is nude or who is engaged in sexual conduct, without his or her consent, with the intent to harm, harass, intimidate, threaten, or coerce the person depicted, and the disclosure would cause a reasonable person to suffer harm." 13 V.S.A. § 2606(b)(1).2

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"Nude" and "sexual conduct" are both expressly defined. The law makes clear that "[c]onsent to recording of the visual image does not, by itself, constitute consent for disclosure of the image." Id. Violation of § 2606(b)(1) is a misdemeanor, unless a person acts "with the intent of disclosing the image for financial profit," in which case it is a felony.

[¶ 6] Section 2606 does not apply to: (1) Images involving voluntary nudity or sexual conduct in public or commercial settings or in a place where a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

(2) Disclosures made in the public interest, including the reporting of unlawful conduct, or lawful and common practices of law enforcement, criminal reporting, corrections, legal proceedings, or medical treatment.

(3) Disclosures of materials that constitute a matter of public concern.

(4) Interactive computer services, as defined in 47 U.S.C. § 230(f)(2), or information services or telecommunications services, as defined in 47 U.S.C. § 153, for content solely provided by another person. This subdivision shall not preclude other remedies available at law.

Id. § 2606(d)(1)-(4).3

[¶ 7]. The law also provides a private right of action "against a defendant who knowingly discloses, without the plaintiff’s consent, an identifiable visual image of the plaintiff while he or she is nude or engaged in sexual conduct and the disclosure causes the plaintiff harm." Id. § 2606(e)(1). In such cases, the court may order equitable relief, including restraining orders and injunctions, "[i]n addition to any other relief available at law." Id. § 2606(e)(2).

III. Facts and Proceedings Before the Trial Court

[¶ 8] In late 2015, defendant was charged by information with violating 13 V.S.A. § 2606(b)(1). In support of the charge, the State submitted an affidavit from a police officer and a sworn statement from complainant, which was incorporated into the officer’s affidavit by reference. The parties agreed that the trial court could rely on these affidavits in ruling on the motion to dismiss; the parties later stipulated to certain additional facts as well.

[¶ 9] The police officer averred as follows. Complainant contacted police after she discovered that someone had posted naked pictures of her on a Facebook account belonging to Anthony Coon and "tagged" her in the picture.4 Complainant called Mr. Coon and left a message asking that the pictures be deleted. Shortly thereafter, defendant called complainant back on Mr. Coon’s phone; she called complainant a "moraless pig" and told her that she was going to contact complainant’s employer, a child-care facility. When complainant asked defendant to remove the pictures, defendant responded that she was going to ruin complainant and get revenge.

[¶ 10]. Complainant told police that she had taken naked pictures of herself and sent them to Mr. Coon through Facebook

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Messenger. She advised that the pictures had been sent privately so that no one else could view them. Defendant admitted to the officer that she saw complainant’s pictures on Mr. Coon’s Facebook account and that she posted them on Facebook using Mr. Coon’s account. Defendant asked the officer if he thought complainant had "learned her lesson."

[¶ 11]. In her sworn statement, complainant provided additional details concerning the allegations above. She described her efforts to delete the pictures from Facebook and to delete her own Facebook account. Complainant stated that the night before the pictures were publicly posted, she learned through a friend that defendant was asking about her. Defendant described herself as Mr. Coon’s girlfriend. Complainant asked Mr. Coon about defendant, and Mr. Coon said that defendant was obsessed with him and that he had never slept with her. Complainant "took it as him being honest so we moved on." The next day, complainant discovered that defendant posted her nude images on Mr. Coon’s Facebook page. A judge found probable cause for the charge against defendant in December 2015.

[¶ 12] In February 2016, defendant filed a motion to dismiss. She argued that 13 V.S.A. § 2606 violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it restricted protected speech and it could not survive strict scrutiny. Defendant also asserted that complainant had no reasonable expectation of privacy because she took the pictures herself and messaged them to Mr. Coon without any promise on his part to keep the pictures private. Defendant cited 13 V.S.A. § 2606(d)(1), which provides an exception from liability for individuals who disclose "[i]mages involving voluntary nudity or sexual conduct in public or commercial settings or in a place where a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy."5

[¶ 13] The State...

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