Does an Intimate Image of Congresswoman Katie Hill Qualify as ‘Revenge Porn’?

The freshman congresswoman from California has asked that the perpetrator be ”punished to the full extent of the law”
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This week, right-wing blog RedState has published a series of articles accusing freshman California congresswoman Katie Hill of everything from drinking to excess to violating House ethics rules by having an affair with a congressional staffer, but what’s caught some people’s attention is an image they used to support one of their claims.

To evince a consensual polyamorous relationship between Hill, her soon-to-be ex-husband Kenny Heslap, and a female campaign staffer, the blog published a blurred nude photo of Hill critics have referred to as “revenge porn,” which is illegal to distribute in California.

“The truth is, distributing intimate photos with the intent to publish them is a crime, and the perpetrator should be punished to the full extent of the law,” Hill said Wednesday in a letter to constituents. The congresswoman admitted to the polyamorous relationship, but has denied the affair with congressional staffer Graham Kelly; the latter issue is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee.

In a statement to the media earlier this week, Hill said, “I am saddened that the deeply personal matter of my divorce has been brought into public view and the vindictive claims of my ex have now involved the lives and reputations of unrelated parties,” she said, also calling Heslep “abusive” and “determined to try to humiliate me.”

Five years ago, California’s penal code was amended to include a passage on “unlawful distribution of image,” a misdemeanor offense. It reads, in part:

“Any person who intentionally distributes the image of the intimate body part or parts of another identifiable person, or an image of the person depicted engaged in an act of sexual intercourse, sodomy, oral copulation, sexual penetration, or an image of masturbation by the person depicted or in which the person depicted participates, under circumstances in which the persons agree or understand that the image shall remain private, the person distributing the image knows or should know that distribution of the image will cause serious emotional distress, and the person depicted suffers that distress.”

Asked whether the image published by RedState qualifies as revenge porn, Newport Beach-based attorney couldn’t quite say. “According to California law, revenge porn requires the dissemination of an intimate body part, so it’s unclear, and it’s an interesting issue, if it’s redacted and disseminated whether or not it depicts an intimate body part,” he told Fast Company. Hill would also have to prove she suffered “serious emotional distress.”

In the image on RedState’s site, Hill’s breast has been blurred out, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the image was distributed to them in unredacted form. If it becomes a matter of jurisdiction, Vice points out that distributing revenge porn is illegal in 46 states and D.C.

When Hill was elected to Congress in 2018, she became the first Democrat to represent California’s 25th District since 1993. She was also youngest person to ever rep the district, as well as the first woman and the first out bisexual to do so. She is being challenged in the upcoming election by Republican former naval officer Mike Garcia, a who released a statement on Wednesday about the ethics investigation, saying, “The allegations against Congresswoman Katie Hill are disturbing. No Member of Congress should ever engage in a relationship with a staffer. Ever. Period…Katie Hill also took an oath and we need full transparency and accountability.” 

Los Angeles emailed Garcia’s media team to ask for a comment about the release of the intimate image, but didn’t receive a response.

On Monday, Hill’s team announced that after the close of the third quarter, Hill’s 2020 campaign haul has reached $2.1 million. “For context,” the release says, “the former incumbent in CA-25 raised an average of $550,000 at this point in the 2016 and 2018 cycles.”


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