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Exposing the Voyeurism Bill

Local Matters


Published March 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Here's an eye-opening fact: In Vermont, it's legal to stand outside your neighbors' house and take pictures of them naked, even if you're peeking through a crack in the bedroom window blinds. That loophole came to light last year when a Montpelier man was caught photographing an unsuspecting teenage girl. Prosecutors have charged him with stalking and with producing child pornography, but it's unclear if the stalking charge will stick. At the moment, state laws apparently do not specifically prohibit his voyeuristic behavior.

State Senator John Campbell (D-Quechee) compares this discovery to the revelation a few years ago that "rape drugs" were still legal in Vermont. Although he notes they've since been outlawed, once again, "We were caught with our pants down," he says. Um, exactly.

Lawmakers are now scrambling to pass a "Peeping Tom" law, but criminalizing this behavior isn't as simple as it might seem. A Senate bill, which passed unanimously last week and will be taken up by the House this spring, would make it illegal to view, photograph, film or disseminate images of a person's "intimate areas" without their consent, provided the subject is in a place where one would have a "reasonable expectation of privacy." But in our increasingly overexposed society, what does that mean?

Campbell, who vigorously supports the bill, compares attempting to legislate privacy to "opening a Pandora's Box." He notes that it bans someone from staring in your windows and taking photos of you nude, but probably not if your house is on Main Street and you like to vacuum in the buff with the blinds up. Store owners could be fined for videotaping customers in the restrooms, but, with proper posting, can still monitor the dressing rooms.

A "Paris Hilton" section of the bill, he says, is designed to keep opportunistic exes in check. It requires anyone distributing intimate images to secure the consent of the parties involved, regardless of whether or not they consented to be filmed or photographed in the first place.

Fred Lane, an author, lecturer and expert witness in cases involving privacy and the porn industry, raises another interesting question: How might this law affect Vermont's nudist community? Does anyone who undresses out of doors forfeit the right to privacy? Or, as Lane argues, should the law grant someone who ventures far enough from public area the right to be left alone?

That could create a murky situation at a place like Shelburne Point, for example. To swim there, or to take pictures of naked swimmers, you must hike through the woods. So Lane says anyone taking pictures from the land might be violating the law. But if a group of people in a canoe paddled by and snapped a photo, that could, conceivably, be legal.

Lane adds that although the bill prohibits disseminating these photos, enforcement of illegal internet posting typically falls to the U.S. Department of Commerce, not the state. So the idea that this bill could penalize voyeurs who post "upskirting" and "downblousing" photos online may be misguided.

The law does specifically allow some people to peep -- it largely exempts law enforcement officials, and offers limited protections to licensed private investigators and security guards.

You might think that PIs, who advertise their surveillance skills, and take photos of indiscreet liaisons for a living, would be nervous about a law regulating voyeurism. But Barre PI David Dwyer says he's all for it.

Dwyer, whose granddaughter was victimized by a peeping Tom, doesn't think the legislation goes far enough. In his line of work, he sees a lot of devious characters. "Most people," he suggests, "live in a sheltered world mentally."

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