Coalition Files Suit to Block Utah Anti-Adult Law

Matt O'Conner
SALT LAKE CITY— A coalition of bookstores, websites, Internet service providers and free speech groups have jointly filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of a controversial Utah law that would require ISPs to rank website content, publish a register of sites considered “harmful to minors” and block access to adult websites upon a customer’s request.

John Morris, attorney for the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, told XBiz that the Utah law is unconstitutional on several grounds.

"Service providers are not able to comply without unconstitutionally trampling on free speech," Morris told XBiz, adding that the publishers of these sites may never realize they’re being blocked.

While adult businesses have the most to lose should the law be implemented, the opposition has drawn widespread support from nonadult businesses.

In fact, the lead plaintiff in the case is The King’s English Bookshop, a mainstream store catering to both children and adults. The store’s owner, Betsey Burton, said she decided to pursue the action because she feared the law would restrict the book descriptions and jacket art she provides on the store’s website.

“Unless I limit the website to children’s books or attempt to exclude children from our website, I risk the danger of a criminal charge,” Burton said.

Burton also pointed out that the law does not make mention of an appeals process. “If I found out that my site is considered harmful to minors, how would I challenge this designation?” she asked.

According to Morris, the law also violates the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution because it effects companies outside of Utah. "Every state that has attempted to regulate content on the Internet has fallen on the commerce clause," Morris said. "Only Congress can regulate what is essentially an interstate medium.

“All the Legislature really accomplished is forcing the state of Utah to spend money to defend a law that will be overturned,” Morris said.

Morris added that numerous sites often share one IP address. Some may have objectionable content while others don’t, he said, but it is technically impossible for an ISP to block only the sites deemed harmful to minors.