by Jason Garcia
Updated 4 yearss ago
On June 10, Gov. Rick Scott invited a handful of lawmakers and advocates to his office to watch him ceremonially sign a bill that makes it a crime to engage in “revenge porn” — posting intimate pictures of an ex-partner online.
Seated at his desk with a blue pen in his right hand, Scott smiled for a photograph as his guests stood behind him. The triumphant image belied the fact that even some of the legislation’s strongest supporters believe the bill is deeply flawed.
Sen. David Simmons (RAltamonte Springs), who carried the legislation through the Senate, says the law has “major defects.” Simmons says he was trying to resolve those defects near the end of the Legislature’s regular session this spring when House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island) suddenly shut his chamber down more than three days early — a move that the Florida Supreme Court later ruled violated the state constitution.
Crisafulli’s move, amid a stalemate with the Senate over health care legislation, effectively killed hundreds of bills that were still being negotiated in the closing days of the session. And it forced some lawmakers to choose between accepting the House version of bills — without any opportunity to make changes — or allowing them to die.
The revenge porn law makes it a first-degree misdemeanor to “sexually cyberharass” someone. A second violation is a felony.
But there’s a caveat: The photo must also include “personal identification information” of the person who is depicted, which is defined elsewhere in state law as any “name or number” (such as address, date of birth or telephone number) that can be used to identify someone. Posting a sexually explicit photo by itself — to a Facebook page or a message board frequented by people who know the victim, for example — is not a crime.
What’s more, the law only applies to photos that are posted to a website. Emailing or texting the photos to others — to everyone at a high school, for instance, or around a college campus — is still legal.
The bill is “woefully restrictive” in what it covers, Simmons says.
The Senate’s version of the bill would have applied to any photos in which the person could be recognized by his or her face and to photos that were emailed or texted to others, as well as posted online.
The initial version of the House bill included those provisions. But it was narrowed down to the more restrictive language — without any explanation — during a meeting of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.
Rep. Tom Goodson (R-Titusville), who has been working on the issue for three years and sponsored the legislation in the House, suggested in a phone interview that he was forced to accept the changes, but he hung up when asked who had forced him.
Several lawmakers and lobbyists who worked on the issue say privately that one of the chief opponents of the legislation was Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach).
There is personal animosity between Goodson, a 64-yearold road contractor with a drawl who sometimes becomes tongue-tied during debates, and Gaetz, a 33-year-old lawyer with a sharp wit but an often-condescending manner. During a session on the House floor last year, Gaetz peppered Goodson with questions about an arcane piece of legislation dealing with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. The interrogation appeared to be an attempt to make Goodson appear unprepared or foolish. Amid the questioning, a microphone captured Goodson calling Gaetz an “a--hole.”
Gaetz was one of just two House members to vote against Goodson’s revenge porn bill this spring. He had successfully blocked the bill in the past. Last year, for instance, the legislation cleared two Senate committees and the full chamber on unanimous votes. But the House bill, though it attracted 17 co-sponsors, was never given a hearing in its first committee of reference — which was chaired by Gaetz.
Gaetz declined to discuss the revenge porn legislation or his relationship with Goodson.
Policy concerns about the Senate’s broader version of the legislation played a role in the bill’s fate. Some staff members in the House worried that making it a crime to email the photos or to post photos that did not include explicit personal identification information could have exposed the law to a constitutional challenge on free-speech grounds, says Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville). McBurney, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, became involved in the issue late in the process after meeting with Simmons. Simmons and McBurney both say they were discussing potential changes to address the concerns when Crisafulli gaveled the House session to a close.
Simmons, like most other senators, was furious with the move. He says he decided that afternoon that he would scuttle the legislation and wait until next year to try again.
But Carly Hellstrom, a 22-yearold Florida State University graduate who had been the victim of revenge porn, saved the legislation. Hellstrom, who worked at a bar near the Capitol, had been personally lobbying for the bill. She sought out Simmons and stressed to him the need to get something on the books. Simmons says the conversation is what persuaded him to accept the House bill.
While Hellstrom says she would have preferred the legislation go further, she says the more restrictive version is still an important first step that will help future victims. “The law is not where it needs to be. But it’s a start,” she says.
She says she plans to press for improvements to the law next year.
“It’s going to be hard,” she says. “But not impossible.”