In its unanimous opinion in Commonwealth v. Robertson, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts avoided the constitutional challenge to the state’s statutory prohibition of “secretly photographing or videotaping a person ‘who is nude or partially nude,'” G.L. c. 272, § 105 (b ), by interpreting the statute not to apply to taking photographs at the areas under women’s skirts (“upskirting”).
The defendant had argued that if § 105 (b ) “criminalizes the act of photographing a fully clothed woman under her skirt while she is in a public place, it is both unconstitutionally vague and overbroad,” but because the court “concluded that § 105 (b ) does not criminalize the defendant’s alleged conduct,” it did not reach the constitutional questions.
Yet, as in many cases, the court’s statutory interpretation does occur in the shadow of the constitutional challenge. The court reasoned that the statute “does not penalize the secret photographing of partial nudity, but of “a person who is ... partially nude” (emphasis in original). Courts have long struggled with definitions of “nudity” – – – recall the United States Supreme Court’s recent foray into this area in FCC v. Fox with an oral argument that drew attention to the nude buttocks in the courtroom decor. [More on this issue is in Dressing Constitutionally].
Additionally, the court reasoned that the statutory element of in “such place and circumstance [where the person] would have a reasonable expectation of privacy in not being so photographed” did not cover the alleged acts of photography in a public place, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) trolley. The court rejected the Commonwealth’s argument emphasizing the “so” in “so photographed” – – – that “because a female MBTA passenger has a reasonable expectation of privacy in not having the area of her body underneath her skirt photographed, which she demonstrates by wearing the skirt” by interpreting “so” as simply referential.
The court concluded that at the
core of the Commonwealth’s argument . . . is the proposition that a woman, and in particular a woman riding on a public trolley, has a reasonable expectation of privacy in not having a stranger secretly take photographs up her skirt. The proposition is eminently reasonable, but § 105 (b ) in its current form does not address it.
And the court noted that in the past legislative session proposed amendments to § 105 were before the Legislature that appeared to attempt to address precisely the type of “upskirting” conduct at issue in the case. Given the court’s opinion in Robertson, this issue will most likely be again before the Massachusetts legislature.