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Worry That New Utah Law Will Lead to a Porn Ban

Adult movie only labeled on Video Tape for Pornography movie concept
By Andrew Leonatti on April 07, 2021 1:38 PM

Sometime in the mid-90s, to most parents' chagrin, it was like someone flipped on a light — specifically, a lava lamp or one of those lamps with a scarf draped over the shade.

Curious kids no longer had to worry about preserving faded, decades-old copies of Playboy and Penthouse, passed from generation to generation like priceless Picassos. The internet just put it all out there, a quick Lycos search away.

A new law in Utah, however, is the opening shot in a renewed effort to try to close Pandora's porn box. And it has civil liberties advocates nervous that it will make it harder to just read the articles.

What's in a Name? A lot, Apparently

The new law, hilariously titled the "Device Filter Amendments" bill, will require all new tablets and smartphones sold in Utah to come with filters automatically activated that will block content "harmful to minors."

In the Beehive State, that means "nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse" that:

  • Appeals to minors' "prurient interest in sex"
  • Is "patently offensive" to what adults consider suitable for children
  • Has no "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" for minors

The law allows the state and public to sue device manufacturers to the tune of up to $10 for each time a minor accesses the "harmful" material.

However, if the new device is for an adult, manufacturers will provide a passcode allowing them to disable the filters.

Attempting to Solve a 'Public Health' Issue

Those early online days seem quaint compared to now. Back then, sneaky teens had to deal with slow-as-molasses dial-up connections on the family computer if they wanted to access the racier side of the internet.

Now, seemingly everyone has a smartphone, leaving kids with a lot of unsupervised screen time.

So those surprised by this new law in Utah shouldn't be. In 2016, state lawmakers there declared pornography a "public health nuisance." Republican state Sen. Susan Pulsipher, the bill's author, said her main concern was protecting kids and helping concerned parents.

"Many parents struggle to know how to turn the filters on appropriately to keep their kids safe from any material," she said.

Activist groups also hailed the bill's passage. Chris McKenna of the group Protect Young Eyes compared the law to the at-the-time controversial law to require the installation of seat belts in new cars.

That Pesky First Amendment

Civil libertarians, on the other hand, are warning that the law presents another opportunity for government overreach.

Ever since the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Communications Decency Act that attempted to regulate internet pornography and children's access to it as overly broad, lawmakers have appeared content to let parents police their children.

University of Utah law professor RonNell Andersen Jones said that the Supreme Court was sympathetic to the idea of protecting what children see on the internet, but didn't want laws that "burn the house to roast the pig."

The Utah law sets a precedent of "Yes, we are accepting governmental control or governmental assistance in parenting our children, and governmental control in the types of content that we're seeing," argued adult film actress Cherie DeVille.

The ACLU of Utah says that the law "infringes upon the general public's First Amendment rights to freely access the internet."

Proponents and opponents will have time to hone their arguments. Most likely to limit the burden on manufacturers, the law does not take effect until five other states enact similar laws. For now, there appear to be no other efforts afoot.

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