Media Outlets Dodge Suit by Ex-Congresswoman Over Publication of Nude Photos

Katie Hill was part of the 2018 “blue wave” that unseated an incumbent congressman, but claimed she became the victim of revenge porn by her ex-husband and right-wing media.

Katie Hill, then a Democratic Party candidate from California’s 25th Congressional district, talks to a reporter on Nov. 6, 2018, after voting in her hometown of Agua Dulce, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Former congresswoman Katie Hill, who resigned from office after nude photos she claims her ex-husband shared with right-wing news outlets and a British tabloid, saw her case against both the outlets and the journalist she says published the photos fizzle this week.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Yolando Orozco tossed Hill’s claims against RedState editor Jennifer Van Laar on Thursday, just one day after dismissing claims against the British tabloid the Daily Mail, also on anti-SLAPP grounds. Hill claimed the outlets violated California’s revenge porn law when they worked with her ex-husband, Kenneth Heslep, to publish the photos.

Orozco found the publications have broad protection under the First Amendment despite the harsh outcome for Hill.

“The idea that the courts should regulate what the activities and duties of journalists are is really not in line with what the court’s role is or with the First Amendment,” said Orozco during a Thursday hearing. “Like it or not, it gives wide protection to all journalistic activities whether they’re investigative or sharing or meeting with anonymous sources or publishing in whatever media.”

Orozco said there was public interest in the publication of the photos because they were the subject of a congressional ethics investigation into Hill’s conduct while in office. Hill eventually resigned in 2019.

Just before adopting her ruling, Orozco said she empathizes with Hill.

“The true culprit in the court’s view is the distributor: the ex-husband who took private images and basically made them available to the world,” said Orozco. “That in the court’s view is tragic and unnecessary to have been done, but the court cannot do anything at this time about that conduct.”

Orozco also denied Hill’s motion to depose Van Laar to learn where she got the photos.

“Hot take: revenge porn — illegally shared images — cannot be considered in the public interest in any circumstance,” Hill tweeted Thursday. “If that’s the precedent, countless women will be afraid to run for office because they have shitty exes.”

Hill, 33, was a rising star in the Democratic party when she unseated an incumbent Republican as part of the “blue wave,” winning a shot at representing a section of Southern California in the U.S. House of Representatives. But at the same time, Hill’s home life was falling apart — and eventually, fallout from the publication of the photos unraveled her political career.

Hill argued Heslep orchestrated the publication of the photos by RedState and the Daily Mail after she tried to end their relationship. RedState first posted images and intimate text messages online in October 2019, and the Daily Mail followed suit.

Hill equated the publication of the photos to “nonconsensual porn” and claimed they were part of her ex-husband’s “revenge vendetta.” She also argued the photos were part of a right-wing campaign to remove her from office.

In addition to suing her ex-husband, Hill accused the Daily Mail and RedState editor Jennifer Van Laar of a conspiracy to distribute the images.

Hill had been fighting an uphill battle in court. Last month, Orozco said Van Laar and RedState had a right to publish the photos because they were a matter of public concern.

Van Laar worked as a campaign adviser to former Rep. Steve Knight, the Republican incumbent Hill unseated. She also co-wrote one of several stories featuring the photos that were published in the Daily Mail.

On Wednesday, Orozco tossed the claims against the Daily Mail on anti-SLAPP grounds in an adopted tentative ruling.

The tabloid argued its Oct. 24, 2019, article is protected speech because Hill’s actions were the subject of a House ethics investigation. As for the tabloid’s inclusion of a photo of Hill with the campaign staffer and other nude photos, Hill argued the photos were not newsworthy because they were not part of the public debate over her role as an elected official. She said the images were not newsworthy and the Daily Mail included the photos for “morbid and sensational prying” that should not be protected speech.

But Orozco found the Daily Mail’s duty to its readers is to question Hill’s character and qualifications as a member of Congress and that is a matter of public concern. That includes allegations of extramarital affairs with a paid campaign staff member, illegal drug use and whether Hill has a tattoo similar to the symbols formerly used by white supremacists.

Hill argued the publication could have just described the photos rather than publish them outright. But Orozco cited the Second Appellate District’s holding in Jackson v Mayweather, involving boxer Floyd Mayweather posting sonogram images online showing twin fetuses after he accused his ex-fiancée of having an abortion. Floyd ultimately dodged the ex’s defamation suit.

“The images cannot be said to be mere “morbid and sensational eavesdropping or gossip [which] ‘serves no legitimate public interest and is not deserving of protection,’” Orozco wrote of the photos of Hill.

Citing the 1969 Supreme Court decision from Kapellas v Kofman, Orozco said, “Moreover, as held by the authorities above, ‘normally the public should be permitted to determine the importance or relevance of the reported facts for itself.’”

Orozco also found the two nude photos published by the Daily Mail are not as explicit as — for example — excerpts from a sex tape. Orozco cited the 1998 decision in the federal case Michaels v. Internet Entertainment Group, in which rock musician Bret Michaels and model Pamela Anderson sued to block an entertainment company from releasing their sex tape.

Orozco said Hill’s situation is entirely different.

“The two photos at issue here are nowhere as explicit as the sex video tape in the Michaels case, and are not morbid as the photos in Jackson were described,” said Orozco in her ruling. “The photos show a sitting congresswoman engaging in conduct some might consider highly inappropriate and perhaps unlawful, with one exhibiting plaintiff’s tattoo which looks similar to the symbols formerly used by white supremacists. 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.”

Hill’s efforts to keep her case alive involve a bid to reopen discovery and depose Van Laar to find out who else had access to the photos. A hearing on that is set for Thursday before Orozco.

In a statement, Hill’s attorney Carrie Goldberg said they plan to appeal as dismissing the 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 widely and published by any person or media purporting to have journalistic intentions,” said Goldberg. “This ruling has the exact opposite effect California’s revenge porn intended — which was to reduce and not amplify and promote nude images without consent.”

Goldberg said in one article the Daily Mail joked about posting photos it acknowledged were provided by Heslep without Hill’s knowledge, despite a restraining order filed in court a few days earlier. Even though the Daily Mail recently apologized to Meghan Markle for publishing a private letter to her father, the tabloid trades in clickbait and wants to cause injury.

“Make no mistake, though, Daily Mail is a misogynistic publication with a business model that peddles in women’s humiliations and privacy invasions,” said Goldberg.

The Daily Mail did not return requests for comment by press time.

In recent weeks, Hill has weighed in on another scandal involving one of her former colleagues. She recently asked Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida to resign from office if allegations he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl are true. Gaetz is the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into whether he and a political associate broke federal sex-trafficking laws and paid underage girls in exchange for sex.

While Gaetz was one of a few elected officials who defended Hill when the nude photos of her surfaced, Hill recently wrote in an article for Vanity Fair that “if there is even a fraction of truth to these reports, he should resign immediately.”

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