Utah Passes Law Restricting Adult Websites

Matt O'Conner
SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Jon Huntsman yesterday signed into law a bill that requires content providers to rate the material on their sites, the Utah’s attorney general’s office to compile what critics are calling a blacklist of sites deemed “harmful to minors” and service providers to block access to such sites upon request.

The law goes into effect immediately.

Technology companies, free speech advocates and even some state workers had lobbied against the measure, SB 260, arguing that it is unconstitutional, too vaguely worded to predict its full impact and has the potential to create a bureaucratic nightmare for state attorneys and private industry.

One passage drawing fire from technology companies is the condition that: Upon request by a consumer, a service provider may not transmit material from a content provider site listed on the adult content registry. Service providers have the option of providing customers with free filtering software or blocking the sites themselves.

At issue is the term “service provider,” which, under the law, could include cable companies, universities, coffee shops and even homes with open 802.11 wireless connections. Service providers that fail to offer their customers a way to disable sites on the list will face felony charges.

Similarly, content providers that fail to classify material the attorney general later finds to be harmful to minors will face a class-A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine. The law provides no specific definition of “harmful to minors,” leaving civil libertarians and speech advocates to wonder what content qualifies.

"There need to be rules and regulations ... addressing the grey areas and providing guidelines on how the classification system will be implemented and used," Michelle Freridge, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, told XBiz. "Anything that could be considered harmful to minors—content addressing gay rights, health issues, information on birth control or sex education—depending on who's defining it and how. If they're [basing the decision on] a fundamentalist religious view, much more content will become unavailable, and that is unacceptable.”

The American Civil Liberties Union already has challenged similar legislation in several other states, including Pennsylvania and New Mexico, and has won each case, typically leaving the taxpayers to pick up the states’ legal bills, which often exceed $1 million.

“When these laws have been found unconstitutional, and they universally have, these bills have turned out to be an ACLU funding bill,” said David Horowitz, director of the Media Coalition, a group that opposed the legislation.

In a letter to the Gov. Huntsman, the Utah ACLU wrote, “… the First Amendment does not allow government to compel speakers to say something they do not want to say, and that includes pejorative ratings.”

Still, supporters, such as Citizens Against Pornography, say the law has been revised and rewritten several times in an effort to strike a balance between giving parents more control over the content their children view on the Internet while eliminating any constitutional concerns.

“Do we let the companies that sell porn continue to escalate the assault in our homes, or do we fight back?” Bullock asked. “We want to fight back.”

Enforcement of the law is expected to cost $250,000 in the first year and $70,000 each year after.