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Utah sued over social media law

The law out of last year’s Utah Legislative Session which requires all social media users to verify their age has raised concerns about privacy, freedom of speech, and potential violations of constitutional rights. And now it’s raised a lawsuit.

The legislation, set to take effect on March 1, came under fire for its one-size-fits-all approach, imposing stringent requirements on all Utah residents seeking to access various social media platforms. Under the law, users must verify their age through methods such as biometric facial scanning, entering the last four digits of their Social Security number, or uploading a driver’s license. Those under 18 are further required to obtain express permission from their parents.

Critics argue that this legislation represents an overreach by the government, restricting the rights of Utah residents and undermining the way people use technology in their daily lives. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit on Jan. 12 against Utah officials, challenging the law’s constitutionality.

Hannah Zoulek, a high school student and one of the plaintiffs, expressed concerns about the law’s impact on her personal development.

“This law will require me and my mom to give sensitive personal information to major tech companies simply to access platforms that have been an integral part of my development, giving me a sense of community and really just helping me figure out who I am as a person,” said Zoulek. She fears that the law will have a chilling effect on Utahns’ speech online, particularly for individuals like herself who identify as queer.

The lawsuit, led by FIRE, includes plaintiffs with diverse backgrounds and experiences. One of the plaintiffs is a YouTuber who creates content about cooking and mental health, while two others are online advocates who escaped a polygamous community and now provide resources to those in similar situations. Lu Ann Cooper and Jessica Christensen, co-founders of the organization Hope After Polygamy, emphasize that at-risk youth will be disproportionately affected by the law’s restrictions.

Cooper, who escaped an abusive polygamous family, highlighted the vital role social media plays in providing resources to individuals in difficult or dangerous situations. She stated, “This law will only hurt children in similar situations.” The plaintiffs argue that the law hinders minors’ ability to find support and connect with people outside their immediate circle, particularly for vulnerable youth lacking support at home and school.

FIRE Chief Counsel Bob Corn-Revere emphasized the historical pattern of censorship as a response to new cultural phenomena. “Censorship is the wrong response to concerns presented by new cultural phenomena, whether the printing press in the 1400s, comic books in the ‘50s, video games in the ‘90s, or social media today,” said Corn-Revere. The lawsuit seeks to halt the enforcement of the law and declare it invalid, with FIRE urging the state of Utah to reconsider less restrictive avenues.

The impact of Utah’s legislation extends beyond concerns about freedom of speech and association. Critics argue that the law’s broad scope could affect a wide range of platforms, from traditional social media sites like Facebook to community-oriented platforms like Goodreads and Allrecipes. The controversy has also sparked a broader conversation about government interference in personal and familial decisions regarding social media use.

Lu Ann Cooper expressed frustration, stating, “The state of Utah is trying to tell me how to raise my kids. This law interferes with my right as a mom to determine how my kids use social media, which each family should decide for itself.” Similar laws are being proposed or enacted in other states, including New Jersey and Louisiana. However, courts in Arkansas and Ohio have already blocked the enforcement of similar laws.

FIRE attorney Kelley Bregenzer criticized Utah’s approach, stating, “Utah ignored less restrictive avenues or media literacy efforts, immediately resorting to a sledgehammer of a law.” The lawsuit calls for a reevaluation of the law, emphasizing the need for a more nuanced and less intrusive approach to address the concerns raised by the state. As legal battles unfold, the outcome could set a precedent for how other states navigate the intersection of technology, privacy, and individual rights.

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