Gov. Jon Huntsman's veto of House Bill 353 underscores the importance of the constitutional checks that can be imposed on the Utah Legislature, whose members often are influenced by ideological extremists or questionable special interest groups.
In this case, while 25 of 29 senators and 67 of 75 representatives voted for the bill that supposedly protected children, it was Huntsman who proved to be the adult, protecting us all from the childlike antics of the legislators and their puppet masters.
HB353 would have given the force of law to voluntary media-industry ratings for video games, CDSs and even books, mandating civil penalties of up to $2,000 plus attorneys fees for stores that sell the products to minors younger than a rating suggests is appropriate.
Huntsman pointed out in his veto message that it could have the unintended effect of having industry ratings removed altogether, so parents would not know the extent of violence or sexual content in the merchandise. There also were questions of constitutionality,
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, told The Tribune that Huntsman was misled by a video game industry campaign against the bill.
But here is the back story.
HB353, and an earlier version that had failed to pass, was stridently pushed by a disbarred Miami attorney who has taken up this cause around the country. The attorney, Jack Thompson, was found guilty on 27 counts of rules violations by the Florida Supreme Court. He has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thompson wrote a lengthy letter in 2007 to then House Speaker Greg Curtis demanding the impeachment of Attorney General Mark Shurtleff after Shurtleff criticized a bill which, at that time, made it illegal to sell certain video games to minors. That bill failed, so HB353 was devised to go after retailers on false advertising grounds instead.
Thompson teamed up with Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka to push the legislation, a fact that Morley seemed reluctant to admit when he was interviewed by Game Politics, a publication that tracks the video-game industry.
Dennis McCauley of Games Politics reported a segmented interview with Morley in which Morley at first said he didn't know Thompson and that Thompson had had little input on the bill. After McCauley contacted Thompson about the interview, he said Thompson threatened to sue the publication if it printed what Morley had said. Thompson also urged McCauley to contact Ruzicka, the apparent go-between.
In a subsequent interview, after apparently being properly tutored by Ruzicka, Morley gave Thompson much more credit for the writing and preparation of the bill.
In another issue of Game Politics, McCauley ran an e-mail exchange he'd had with Thompson. When McCauley asked Thompson why he would call for impeaching the attorney general over a difference of opinion, Thompson responsed:
"Listen, goofball ... morons like Shurtleff need to be called out as morons. The bill has no chance of surviving as a law if Shurtleff scuttles it."
After Huntsman vetoed HB353, Thompson wrote the governor: "If your veto is not overridden, then we will be back with a bill to ban the sale of these products altogether ... ."
This is a guy who is guiding legislation in Utah, the latest example of the influence certain ideologues can have on a Legislature controlled by one political party and too often predisposed to approve legislation, no matter how bad or bizarre, from right-wing zealots.
A bill was introduced years ago by then Rep. Frances Hatch Merrill to outlaw "subliminal advertising," even though there was no evidence such a thing existed. Her "expert," who testified before the House that advertisers put subliminal images of naked women in whiskey bottles, was a 40-year-old man living with his mother who made his living as a part-time ballroom dance instructor.