Judge Deals Former Congresswoman Another Legal Defeat in Revenge Porn Suit


LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A judge today dealt Katie Hill another legal blow by dismissing Salem Media Group as a defendant in the former congresswoman's revenge porn lawsuit alleging nude photos of her were published without her permission.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yolanda Orozco ruled that Salem Media, owner of the conservative blog RedState.com, had shown that the photos were matters of legitimate interest involving a public official because they addressed Hill's character and qualifications for her position.

RedState.com published one article in October 2019 with a link to a photograph of Hill brushing a female worker's hair. The blog maintained the photo did not depict any “intimate body part'' of Hill and argued that Hill's actions called into question her character and ability to continue as a representative in American government.

In contrast, Hill's attorneys maintained that the “core injury-producing conduct underlying plaintiff's claims is the theft and nonconsensual distribution of her private sexual images,'' the judge wrote.

But Orozco found that the distribution of the intimate images through their publication on a public website constitutes a “statement'' or “other conduct in furtherance'' of the right to free speech.

“Here, the intimate images published by (RedState.com) spoke to plaintiff's character and qualifications for her position, as they allegedly depicted Plaintiff with a campaign staffer with whom it was alleged she had a sexual affair,'' the judge wrote in a tentative ruling Monday that she finalized on Tuesday. “Accordingly, the images were a matter of public issue or public interest.''

Hill's lawyer, Carrie Goldberg, told the judge the harm done to Hill is humiliation and she questioned where the line should be drawn when it comes to people having autonomy over their sexual privacy. She said the ruling will encourage the future dissemination of nude photos, exactly the opposite of what was intended by the revenge porn statute.

But Orozco said case law shows the conduct of public officials is a matter of public interest and that the media have protection for publishing news that includes images.

“The hurdle is one that is very difficult to overcome and your client hasn't overcome it in this case,'' the judge said. “You had an uphill battle, I'm sure you knew that.''

The judge said she expects the case to end up on appeal.

Salem Media attorney James J. Holmes told Orozco that the qualifications of political candidates is “clearly a public issue.''

Orozco earlier this month granted similar First Amendment-based motions by the Daily Mail and reporter Jennifer Van Laar to be removed as defendants in the lawsuit.

Orozco previously said she was sympathetic to the impact of the publications of photos on Hill, calling the decisions by Hill's ex-husband, Kenneth Heslep, to make the images available to the media, “tragic and unnecessary.''

The 33-year-old Hill submitted a lengthy sworn declaration in opposition to Salem Media's dismissal motion.

“My nude body is not a matter of public interest,'' Hill said. “Moreover, even if my alleged relationship was a matter of public interest, that does not justify the illegal worldwide dissemination of my nude image. I was humiliated and traumatized by the circulation of the nude image.''

Hill sued Dec. 22, alleging in her court papers that she lived in fear that if she ever tried to leave, Heslep would kill them both and their animals. Heslep remains a defendant in the lawsuit.

Hill “suffered extreme emotional distress, attempted suicide and was forced to quit her job, which in this case was the representative of California's 25th Congressional District, one of the most difficult-to-get jobs in the universe,'' her court papers state.

Hill and Heslep officially divorced in October.

Hill, a Democrat, resigned in 2019 after the nude photos were published and news emerged that she had a three-way relationship with her husband and a campaign staffer. She was also accused of having an affair with a member of her congressional staff.

Hill publicly blamed her then-husband for the release of the photos. Speaking in Congress in 2019, she decried a “misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.''

The 25th Congressional District includes Santa Clarita Valley, and portions of the northern San Fernando Valley, Antelope Valley and eastern Ventura County.

The seat had long been held by Republicans until Hill's 2018 victory over then-Rep. Steve Knight. After Hill's resignation, Republican Mike Garcia defeated Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith in a special election to fill the final 7 1/2 months of the term.

Garcia then beat Smith again by a razor-thin margin in November's election for a full two-year term.

Photo: Getty Images

Copyright 2021, City News Service, Inc.


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