Bill in response to St. George drag shows not heard before end of Utah legislative session

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A bill that would require cities and other subdivisions of the state to provide public notice that an event in a public space might have adult content failed only because the Utah Senate didn’t find time to pass it on the final day of the Utah 2023 Legislative Session.

HB 329 was sponsored by Rep. Colin Jack, R-St. George, who told St. George News that it was drafted in response to the public uproar that occurred last summer in St. George over the HBO “We’re Here” drag show.

“This bill is about protecting children and empowering parents,” Jack said in his testimony no less than a dozen times. “Parents have told me they feel disenfranchised in our public spaces.”

No public comments mentioned drag, even when Rep. Sahara Hayes, D-Millcreek, tried on the House floor to get Jack to give examples of what the bill is intended to cover.

The bill passed the House in a party-line 55-14 vote. It also passed the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee hearing and moved to the full Senate.

Jack said the bill purposely left out strict definitions of what adult themes may imply, leaving it to public entities approving an event permit to make that determination.

Groups and individuals spoke in favor of the bill on Monday, including the Utah Eagle Forum, Utah Parents United, and the Washington County Republican Women. Leeds Mayor Bill Hoster and St. George City Councilwoman Michelle Tanner also lent their voices in support of HB 329. Tanner likened the bill to existing state law that requires coverings to be put over provocative magazine covers found in supermarket checkout lines.

“It’s a very simple bill,” said Tanner. “We know it is harmful to children when they are exposed to certain adult behaviors and adult content. … We really, really need to put children first.”

However, the bill faced opposition from Equality Utah, the American Liberties Union of Utah, and others arguing that it doesn’t protect children as much as it violates the First Amendment and invites litigation.

“This bill is not constitutional,” attorney David Reymann said during a Senate Committee hearing. “It is a content-based restriction on free speech. … It is hopelessly and unconstitutionally vague. … It’s not a well-thought-out bill and is an invitation to litigation.”

Lyla Mahmoud of ACLU Utah said the bill might result in people feeling their free speech is being suspended due to not being able to hold a public event out of the worry it may be labeled as inappropriate. This, too, may lead to litigation, she said.

“In this bill, we’re not attempting to redefine any of that, and we’re not attempting to prohibit any kind of free speech,” Jack said during the hearing. “We’ve said that in the application, if the local standard deems that (the event) is legal, but maybe not good for minors, then it should have a notice so that parents will know whether or not to bring their kids to those events.”

The bill includes language meant to protect public staff who do the permitting, but parties that commented against the bill remained skeptical.

“It’s challenging for a city council to try and regulate this,” said Brian Allen, a member of the Cottonwood Heights City Council. “It’s fraught with all sorts of liability issues. You’re putting city councils in an awkward position.”

Jack told St. George News the bill “was on the right side of the First Amendment” and that “litigation is the threat people use for legislation people don’t like.”

In the final hours of the Legislative Session, the bill remained on the board, meaning it was not passed into law.

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