Posting Nude Photos of Member of Congress Was Protected Speech, California Court Rules

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on April 09, 2021 | Last updated on August 10, 2021

Katie Hill was still a relatively new member of Congress when she resigned in 2019 after a story broke about an intimate relationship with a campaign staffer, a violation of House rules that led to an ethics investigation. As part of the coverage, the Daily Mail published nude photos of Hill without her consent.

One of the defendants in the case, Jennifer Van Laar, co-wrote one of the stories for the Daily Mail in which the photos were published. Van Laar worked as a campaign adviser to former Rep. Steve Knight, whom Hill defeated in 2018. Hill alleges that her ex-husband, Kenneth Heslep, took the photos and shared them with Van Laar and media outlets in revenge for the breakup of their marriage. Hill has also accused Heslep of being abusive.

Hill alleged that these actions violated California's revenge porn laws. She filed the lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court in December 2020.

A Matter of Public Interest

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Yolando Orozco granted a motion to dismiss the complaint on Wednesday, April 7, holding that the Daily Mail's publication of the photos was protected free speech. The Daily Mail filed an anti-SLAPP motion against Hill, claiming that they were engaged in protected activity.

Judge Orozco held that since the images spoke to Hill's character and qualifications for office, their publication online was indeed protected by the First Amendment. Hill may be seen in the photos as having an extramarital affair with a paid campaign staffer.

Hill argued that the Daily Mail could have described the images rather than publish sensitive personal photos never intended to be seen by the public. Judge Orozco did not find that argument persuasive, however, writing that “[t]he photos show a sitting Congresswoman engaging in conduct some might consider highly inappropriate and perhaps unlawful . . . The facts of which these photos speak are about Plaintiff's character, judgment, and qualifications for her congressional position. Of course, these are matters of public concern."

Public Interest or Revenge Porn?

Hill is trying to reopen discovery in the case to determine who else could have had access the photos. Attorney Carri Goldberg, who represents Hill in the case, has been active on Twitter, arguing that “Dismissing Katie Hill's case on ANTI-SLAPP grounds sets a dangerous precedent for victims of nonconsensual pornography everywhere. Anybody who dares enter the public eye should now have legitimate concern that old nude and sexual images can be shared." Goldberg has already publicly indicated she will appeal the dismissal.

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