Review: The most troubling aspect of the Vanessa Bryant case


Editor’s note: Danielle Keats is the Citron Jefferson Scholars Foundation Distinguished Schenck Professor of Law and the Caddell and Chapman Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law. John CP Goldberg Carter is Professor of General Jurisprudence at Harvard Law School. Benjamin C. Zipursky is the James H. Quinn ’49 Professor of Legal Ethics at Fordham Law School. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.



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Vanessa Bryant’s recent verdict against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Fire Departments represents a federal jury’s response to the immoral and grotesquely offensive behavior of some of its employees.

Bryant and Chris Chester lost their spouses and a child in a horrific helicopter crash that killed nine people. The defendants were sued for allowing their employees to violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to control the dissemination of images of deceased relatives. In fact, they complained that, due to the department’s failures, the employees – instead of showing respect for the situation – used their phones to take pictures of the mutilated bodies of the victims of the accident and then shared those images with friends and acquaintances. Jurors awarded Bryant and Chester $30 million in damages, holding the departments and their employees accountable for this egregious invasion of privacy and dignity.

John CP Goldberg

What’s most troubling about Bryant and Chester’s on-court victories, however, is their rarity. Every day, thousands of Americans suffer similar (or more egregious) privacy violations and find no recourse in our courts. Too many people—mostly women, children, and LGBTQ individuals—suffer grievously when pictures of their naked bodies are shared or posted online, often with identifying information. Due to strong stereotypes and attitudes, the circulation of intimate images is particularly costly for women and minorities. The non-consensual release of images like this isn’t just school fun, it’s more like LA officers doing their job.

Benjamin C. Zipursky

Violation of privacy by the disclosure of intimate images causes enormous emotional, physical and financial damage, compounded by the realization that, as things stand today, little or nothing can be done. Victims suffer from PTSD and depression, and young people are vulnerable to suicide.

Fourteen-year-old Jill Naber hanged herself after a topless photo of herself went viral. Fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life after a stranger convinced her to show her breasts on a webcam and then created a Facebook page with the image. Before he killed himself, he posted a video on YouTube explaining his devastation by explaining that the picture is “out there forever”.

For adults, violations of intimate privacy lead to job losses, economic disaster, slurred speech, and tarnished reputations. The case of “Carla”—a teacher interviewed by one of us (Citron) while writing a book on intimate privacy—shows the situation of a person who has suffered violations of intimate privacy but has no meaningful way to respond. (We use a name here to avoid adding intimate privacy violations that can be searched online and in its name.)

One morning, she started getting texts from strangers asking if she was free for sex. She immediately thought of her ex, who warned her that she would regret ending the relationship. She Googled his name because she suspected her ex had posted something online. What she found was her worst nightmare: sexually explicit, partially nude photos on adult sites and message boards. Next to the pictures were his name and phone number.

Carla’s ex also created a fake account on a dating app and sent intimate photos of herself to men who thought they were dating her. Carla soon discovered that most sites had no intention of removing the photos because non-consensual nude images are essential to their business model.

Although 48 states, Washington DC and two US territories now have criminal statutes that allow some perpetrators to face punishment for non-consensual disclosure of intimate images, law enforcement often does nothing. Because state and local law enforcement officers lack training in how to handle cybercrime and face troubling attitudes that trivialize intimate privacy violations, they often tell victims to turn off their computers and just accept that “boys will be boys.”

Civil liability is even rarer. It is nearly impossible to report individual users posting content, even if they can be identified. State courts routinely disregard the rights to privacy and dignity of the (usually) women and girls whose lives are destroyed. And the ironically named Communications Decency Act 230 effectively immunizes websites from liability for user-generated content.

Because of the dire consequences of this legal immunity—in some cases, judicially created and in others, legislatively invented—victims are not only denied multi-million dollar judgments, but often cannot get lawyers to take their cases. Without deep pockets for litigation, lawyers won’t take on victims’ cases on a contingency basis. Victims do not even have a basic remedy: the power to stop the dissemination of intimate images.

Vanessa Bryant suffered a dehumanizing violation of privacy on top of an unspeakable tragedy. His legal victory is unusual for many reasons, including the high visibility of the Bryant family, the notorious record of Los Angeles public officials, and the lack of an Internet dimension (which kept the case immune from the Communications Decency Act). The legal accountability that Bryant and Chester have thankfully achieved should advance the law’s recognition and redress of intimate image abuse more broadly.

Congress should amend the Communications Decency Act to help the hundreds of millions of people whose privacy and dignity continue to be under attack, not the thousands of sites that profit from the traffic of non-consensual intimate images. Removing federal immunity will not be enough, however, because the cultural biases and economic incentives that protect the sharing of non-consensual images run deep. State and federal lawmakers must work with victim advocates to craft new laws that stop the spread of nude images and hold individual perpetrators and their enablers accountable through the courts.

Removing federal immunity will not be enough, however, because the cultural biases and economic incentives that protect the sharing of non-consensual images run deep. State and federal lawmakers must work with victim advocates to craft new laws that stop the spread of nude images and hold individual perpetrators and their enablers accountable through the courts.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) at 988 or 800-273-8255 to connect with a trained counselor, or visit NSPL site.