In Which I Defend, Against Franks and Citron, Your Right to Sext


In the same way that sovereign citizens and jailhouse lawyers take snippets of language from cases and quote them as gospel truth, applicable in all cases, anti-revenge-porn zealots take snippets of language from cases and quote them as gospel truth, applicable in all cases:

While Bennett has accurately described categories of speech that the Supreme Court has deemed “unprotected,” there are other types of speech that are lesser-protected. The most established example of lesser-protected speech is commercial speech.

The Supreme Court has also recognized that “speech on matters of purely private concern” receives “less stringent” protection from the First Amendment (Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749, 759-60 (1985)). That sounds quite a bit like the speech Citron is talking about when she says that revenge porn bans should be limited to private communications between people in a trusting relationship. And footnote 190 of Citron and Mary Anne Franks’s article, Criminalizing Revenge Porn, suggests that this is precisely the area of First Amendment doctrine Citron is referencing.

The distinction between speech of purely private concern and that of legitimate public concern has been invoked by the Supreme Court in public-employee speech cases, among them Pickering v. Board of Education; Connick v. Myers; and City of San Diego v. Roe. Public employees may speak freely on matters of public concern. Outside of matters of public concern, their speech is less protected. A governmental employer may impose on the speech of its employees restraints that would be unconstitutional if applied to the general public.

The 2004 unanimous opinion in San Diego v. Roe is instructive: John Roe was fired from his job as a San Diego cop for making pornography. The Court concluded that Officer Roe’s porn did not qualify as a matter of public concern.

Speech of purely private concern is not less protected from prosecution. I have not found a challenge to a criminal statute in which the Supreme Court invoked the distinction between speech of purely private concern and that of legitimate public concern. But if the Court did, we know from San Diego v. Roe that pornography is not a matter of public concern.

Danielle Citron and Mary Anne Franks profess support for people’s right to take erotic pictures of themselves and send them to their intimate partners. Two things put the lie to this:

  • Their eagerness to adopt Eugene Volokh’s goofy suggestion that the Court might treat revenge porn (“along with many consensual depictions of nudity”) as obscenity; and
  • Their willingness to import a “purely private concern” test into First Amendment criminal law.

If the Court treats many consensual depictions of nudity as obscenity, or if speech of purely private concern receives less-stringent protection, then the creators of erotic images will risk criminal sanction along with those who publish them without consent.

Citron’s and Franks’s argument for revenge porn being less protected as purely private speech depends on those snippets of language from as-applied challenges in tort and public-employee cases applying to as-written challenges in criminal cases. Supreme Court jurisprudence is all over the board, and there have been changes both radical and incremental in First Amendment law in the last century. A test that applies in an as-applied public-employee case or a tort case doesn’t necessarily apply in an as-written criminal case; nor should it. Nor does a test used in 1985 necessarily apply in 2014.

So how, if we can’t rely on language from 1985’s as-applied defamation case, Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, do we predict what the Supreme Court will do with a challenge to a revenge-porn statute?

We look at what the Supreme Court has done in recent years in procedurally analogous cases.

Procedurally, a challenge to a revenge-porn statute will be an as-written criminal statutory challenge. The best guide we have for how the Court will analyze a revenge-porn statute is the Court’s recent as-written-statutory-challenge cases, such as U.S. v. Stevens, 2010’s crush-film case, and U.S. v. Alvarez, 2012’s “stolen valor” case.

In both of these cases the Court applied, with no mention of strict scrutiny, the categorical test that I described in First Amendment 101; in neither of these cases did the Court even bother to discuss whether the speech (commercial depictions of animal cruelty in one; untrue claims of military service in the other) were “commercial speech,” were “matters of purely private concern,” or otherwise could evade the categorical test.

So no, speech “of purely private concern” neither receives less protection in the criminal context, nor should receive less protection than speech of legitimate public concern. Even zealots should be able to see the slippery slope we’re on if the Supreme Court signs off on their cocakmamie theories.


2 responses to “In Which I Defend, Against Franks and Citron, Your Right to Sext”

  1. […] Most importantly, though, because even though we might agree that there is revenge porn—the malicious disclosure of erotic pictures—that is worthy of condemnation and perhaps should be criminalizable, we also recognize that to uphold a revenge-porn criminalization statute the Court would have to either shoehorn it into an already-recognized category of unprotected speech or recognize a new category of unprotected speech. Franks and Citron have proposed, for example, that revenge porn be treated as obscenity (already-recognized category) or “purely private speech” (new category), either of which would allow the state to criminalize not only the distribution of revenge porn, but also the consensual creation of the images themselves. […]

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