Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Revenge Pornography and First Amendment Exceptions

Andrew Koppelman

The Supreme Court has recently declared that speech is protected by the First Amendment unless it is a type of communication that has traditionally been unprotected. If this is the law, then harms will accumulate and the law will be helpless to remedy them. A recent illustration is the new phenomenon of “revenge pornography,” which some states have attempted to prohibit.

These prohibitions restrict speech on the basis of its content. Content-based restrictions (unless they fall within one of the categories of unprotected speech) are invalid unless necessary to a compelling state interest. The state’s interest in prohibiting revenge pornography, so far from being compelling, may not even be one that the state is permitted to pursue. The central harm that such a prohibition aims to prevent is the acceptance, by the audience of the speech, of the message that this person is degraded and appropriately humiliated because she once displayed her naked body to a camera. The harm, in other words, consists in the acceptance of a viewpoint. Viewpoint-based restrictions on speech are absolutely forbidden.

Free speech is a complex cultural formation that aims at a distinctive set of goods. Its rules must be formulated and reformulated with those specific goods in mind. Pertinently here, one of those goods is a citizenry with the confidence to participate in public discussion. Traumatized, stigmatized women are not the kind of people that a free speech regime aims to create. Revenge pornography threatens to create a class chronically dogged by a spoiled social identity, and a much larger class of people who know that they could be subjected to such treatment without hope of redress. That state of affairs is directly contrary to the ideal of a regime in which everyone is empowered to participate in public discourse.

I elaborate in a paper forthcoming in the Emory Law Review, available on SSRN here.

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