State Lawmakers Look to Deter Online Harassment, Sexting

Mar 25, 2015

Rep. Tom Goodson

State lawmakers are considering bills to criminalize online sexual harassment and crack down on sexting. 

Florida State University student Carly Helstrom says a brief fling several years ago led to months of embarrassment when nude photos of her ended up online. She says her former partner was intentionally trying to hurt her when he posted sexually explicit photos of her.

“You have no idea the extent that I went for three months, ‘There’s nothing we can do. I’m sorry. Do you need therapy?’ No, I need a hug, and I need the law to change, you know, I need you to back me with this,” Helstrom says. “This is not just happening to me.”

Florida law doesn’t penalize people for posting explicit photos of others online. HB151 would change that. Posting so-called “revenge porn” would start as a misdemeanor.  Subsequent offenses would become felonies.  HB151 would also allow victims to sue. Helstrom says the bill could better serve victims by making this act a felony the first time.

“For the past year, it was the first thing you see when you Google my name. I think it’s absolute b.s. that that would be a misdemeanor,” Helstrom says. “It is not a misdemeanor. It is a felony. It needs to be. We just need protection.”

Jennifer Drit agrees victims need immediate relief but she favors a lighter penalty for first-time offenders. Drit is executive director for the Florida Council on Sexual Violence.

“We are actually very pleased that the first offense is a misdemeanor because there are times when people make very stupid mistakes and they would never do it again,” Drit says, adding, “We like the fact that there is progressive discipline in this bill.”

The bill’s sponsor is Republican Representative Tom Goodson of Titusville. He says the state could do more to make Internet users aware of possible danger in using technology in sexually explicit exchanges.

“Hopefully with time with this bill, maybe we can educate our young people that this is so dangerous and if you have children at home, when you go back home, you might want to be aware of the Internet because it is very dangerous and it will affect you forever,” Goodson says.

The bill cleared a House Justice Committee on Wednesday—along with another bill that would enforce non-criminal penalties to minors who sext. Sexting is using electronic devices, usually phones, to transmit sexually explicit content to others. Minors could face a $60 fine, eight hours of community service or an online safety class if found guilty of sexting. Both bills have one more committee stop before reaching the House floor. Similar bills could be considered in the Senate.