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Former Rep. Katie Hill loses two rounds in her lawsuit alleging revenge porn

Katie Hill stands at a podium in front of an American flag.
A judge ruled that the publication of intimate pictures of Katie Hill was protected by the First Amendment.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A British tabloid and a conservative journalist did not violate California’s revenge-porn law by publishing intimate pictures of then-Rep. Katie Hill without her consent, a judge ruled on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Daily Mail’s and Red State reporter Jennifer Van Laar’s news gathering and publication of images depicting a nude Hill brushing another woman’s hair and holding a bong are protected by the 1st Amendment, and the content of the pictures was in the public interest because of Hill’s position as an elected official, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Yolanda Orozco wrote in decisions that dismissed Hill’s cases against both.

Hill vowed to appeal.

“Today, we lost in court because a judge — not a jury — thinks revenge porn is free speech. This fight has massive implications for any woman who ever wants to run for office, so quitting isn’t an option,” Hill tweeted on Wednesday.

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Van Laar on Thursday called the decision a win for the 1st Amendment.

“Today’s ruling ... is a victory for journalists and recognizes the important work we do in appraising citizens about the actions of their elected officials” Van Laar said. “I’m proud to have the opportunity to stand up for the 1st Amendment and for the right of all journalists to keep people informed.”

An attorney for the Daily Mail declined to comment.

Hill, a 33-year-old Democrat, was elected to Congress to represent northern Los Angeles County in 2018, flipping a traditionally Republican seat. She was viewed as a rising star in the party but resigned less than a year later after the Daily Mail and the conservative Red State website published the photos along with a story accusing Hill of inappropriate behavior with a campaign staffer and a congressional aide.

(Hill denied the affair with the aide, which would have violated House rules, but admitted to having a relationship with the campaign staffer, which she conceded was inappropriate because the woman was a subordinate.)

Hill sued the Daily Mail, Red State, Van Laar and ex-husband Kenneth Heslap, arguing they violated California’s revenge-porn law by distributing or publishing the intimate photographs.

The media outlets and Van Laar argued that Hill failed to meet the requirements of the law because they were not the original distributors of the images, because Hill’s nipples and genitals were redacted in the published pictures and because of a “public interest” exemption. They asserted a 1st Amendment right to publish information about an elected official’s behavior that is newsworthy.

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Red State’s motion to dismiss the case is scheduled to be heard this month. Hill’s ex-husband has not filed any paperwork and does not have a lawyer on file in the case.

As federal agents investigate Rep. Matt Gaetz in a sex-trafficking inquiry, the scandal is fast becoming an inflection moment for the post-Trump Republican Party.

Krista Lee Baughman, Van Laar’s attorney, said the judge’s ruling was groundbreaking.

“Speech related to the character and qualifications of our elected leaders enjoys the highest protection under the 1st Amendment, which is why California’s new law carves out liability exceptions for speech related to matters of public concern,” Baughman said. “As the court suggested at oral argument, if the speech in this case does not involve a matter of public concern that is protected by the 1st Amendment, nothing would.”

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Carrie Goldberg, Hill’s attorney, warned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent for victims of revenge porn.

“This is just phase 1 of the fight. There’s much more in store. Daily Mail may have won this motion, but they will go down in history as a woman-terrorizing sicko publication,” she tweeted on Wednesday. “And this will get reversed.”


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