Hey ladies, you know that creepy guy who tries to peek up your skirt ? Well it’s now legal for him to take a photo of you as well.
One such creep, Christopher Hunt Cleveland, was arrested last June at the Lincoln Memorial on two counts of attempted voyeurism. Park police were suspicious of Cleveland when they spotted him taking photos of women on the steps above him rather than the giant statute of the bearded man. When police searched Cleveland’s camera and car, they found several hundred photos of women’s “private parts.”
At this point, most would expect a plea bargain if not an outright conviction. Unfortunately for decent people, Cleveland’s lawyer convinced Judge Juliet McKenna to suppress the evidence. Judge McKenna ruled that Cleveland’s photographs could not be used as evidence against him because “there is no evidence Mr. Cleveland positioned his camera in any way or employed photographic techniques or illumination, so as to capture images that were not already on public display.” In other words, the photographs were inadmissible as evidence because somehow the women’s crotches were already visible to the naked eye. Score one for the perverts.
Halfway across the country, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals came to a similar, although slightly different, conclusion. Ronald Thompson was arrested in 2011 after he was caught taking underwater pictures of children in swimsuits. Although police couldn’t charge him with child pornography (the children were clothed), they did try to convict him under a statute which prohibited improper photography or visual recording acquired in public for sexual gratification.
In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that the law banning improper photography for sexual gratification violated the free speech clause of the Constitution. The Court agreed that the law was trying to protect citizens from dirty sexual thoughts, but regulation of thoughts is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect against.
Is It Always the Woman’s Fault?
Although the two cases and the outcomes were similar, the two courts took two different paths to arrive at these disturbing results. Internet commentators have condemned both rulings as cases that destroy women’s privacy. The outrage is understandable, but criminal prosecution isn’t the route society should take to stop this kind of behavior.
The D.C. Court ruled that the voyeur’s photos were not evidence of a violation of the law because the pictures were not depictions of anything illegal. Judge McKenna didn’t rule that women have no privacy, but that their privacy had not been violated. Indeed, it would be odd if the judge had ruled that women have no privacy because Judge McKenna is only a trial level judge without the authority to make that kind of ruling. Moreover, Judge McKenna is a women; it’s hard to argue that “male privilege” was a factor when the decision comes from a judge who might one day be on the wrong end of her own ruling.
The Texas case is a different beast altogether. Unlike Cleveland, Thompson was already guilty of violating a law. The Appeals Court overturned the law his conviction was built on because the law itself violated free speech. The free speech argument is particularly clever because it subtly shifts the focus of the case from the women’s privacy to the defendant’s right to express himself. In D.C., women’s privacy wasn’t violated. In Texas, women’s privacy was a secondary concern.
If criminal prosecution isn’t the answer, what is? Free speech only limits government action. If you feel your privacy has been violated, you’re free to bring a lawsuit yourself. Such a lawsuit could produce a court order to make the pervert stop. The problem is that the camera guy would have to take pictures of the same woman repeatedly for her to bring suit, and voyeurs like Cleveland target different women every day.
On the other hand, if someone like Thompson is taking pictures at a private facility like a water park, the business itself can ban the pedophile from entering. If someone is taking pictures of you or you see someone taking pictures at a restaurant or private park, you should definitely complain to management and/or the owners.