Utah legislators are moving to erase from statute the state’s long-dormant “obscenity and pornography complaints ombudsman”popularly dubbed the porn czar — that once generated international jokes and razzing.

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, says he may try instead to revive that office with a wider scope “not just to focus on pornography,” allowing residents to seek legal guidance from the state on many issues.

Weiler was the sponsor of Utah’s resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis, as well as legislation that allows parents to sue pornographers for the cost of counseling that children may need after viewing smut. He says he became convinced that the obscenity and pornography complaints office may be needed because of an ad campaign attacking Cosmopolitan magazine as illegal porn.

“I’ve received some complaints since this [ad] campaign started that stores are selling Cosmo at eye level to a child,” he said. “There’s no blinder rack on it, even though we have some blinder rack language in the state code.”

So, he said, it might be helpful to revive the ombudsman post to give guidance to retailers and the public about what the law allows and requires — not only on pornography, but also other matters.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Senator Todd Weiler comments on the medical marijuana bill SB73 on the floor of the senate Friday, February 19, 2016.

This is occurring as the attorney general’s office recommended that the Legislature finally repeal long-unused language that created the old ombudsman office. “We’re always looking for statutory language that is essentially stale and not being used,” Weiler said.

The Judiciary Interim Committee endorsed a bill to remove the language a couple of weeks ago, with Weiler making the motion.

Colorful history

The old porn czar’s office had a short but colorful history.

The Legislature created it in 2000, saying it would provide resources for residents to curb pornography in their neighborhoods and online. Attorney Paula Houston was hired and given a budget of $150,000 a year, and became the nation’s first and only “porn czar” in 2001.

“Of course, the whole thing was a public relations nightmare and kind of made Utah the laughingstock of the nation,” Weiler said. It attracted news stories by media from around the world and jokes by late-night comedians.

A Washington Post story told how Houston was called on by residents to “persuade supermarkets to display racy magazines at adult-eye level, intercept a Victoria’s Secret catalog from a family’s mailbox, remove R-rated videos from public libraries, forbid the display of unclothed mannequins at department stores and outlaw strip clubs.”

Houston told The Post, “One of the first things I tell people is that what the government can do is very limited. … But the power of the people is very strong. They can have a huge impact on the community.”

Then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff conceded to The Post that Houston’s job was “mainly symbolic.”

It also soon became expendable. When the attorney general’s office had to cut its budget, the ombudsman post was among items axed in 2003 — although language allowing an ombudsman remained on the books.

Houston — now the deputy city attorney in St. George — did not respond to requests by The Salt Lake Tribune about what she thinks of reviving and expanding an ombudsman office now.

Cosmo and porn

Weiler said he is toying with that idea largely because of conversations he had with Victoria Hearst — who is running the ad campaign against Cosmopolitan magazine, even though her extended family owns it.

Concerns she raised, said Weiler, make him believe an ombudsman may be useful. “It’s not that we would have someone going out from the A.G.’s office arresting business owners, but more of a clearinghouse for questions to be answered.”

“I’m very pleased with Sen. Weiler’s proposal,” Hearst wrote in an email to The Tribune. “As Utah has a very good ‘Material Harmful to Minors’ law that carries with it penalties for selling pornography to kids under 18, why not have an ombudsman who can help retailers determine what is and is not legal?”

Hearst — granddaughter of the late publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (and sister of Patty Hearst Shaw, famous for helping people who kidnapped her to commit a bank robbery) — is an evangelical Christian who founded Praise Him Ministries.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brightly colored billboard just north of the 5300 S. exit on I-15 northbound claims that Cosmopolitan magazine is pornographic. That ad campaign is central to a move that may revive the long-dormant state office that was popularly called the porn czar.

She said she asked the Hearst Corp. to label Cosmo — the best-seller among its 21 magazines — as “adult material” so it cannot be sold to anyone under 18, but the company refused. So she used her personal wealth to launch an ad campaign in select states to argue that it is porn.

The Beehive State was a logical choice for billboards and radio ads, Hearst said, because “Utah is a state that seems to care about protecting children from pornography. My campaign is finding allies like Sen. Weiler there, and I’m very grateful.”

Utah law

State law makes it clear, she argues, that the magazine should be kept away from youngsters.

“Cosmopolitan magazine clearly is in violation of Utah’s Material Harmful to Minors law and should be treated like Hustler, Penthouse, and other pornographic magazines.”

Utah Code 76-10-1201(5) defines materials as harmful to minors if they contain “any description or representation, in whatsoever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse when it: taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors; is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors; and taken as a whole, does not have serious value for minors.”

Hearst urges people to read that law, “Then buy a Cosmo each month and look at the ‘sex’ section. Ask yourself if young girls should be exposed to that.”

Weiler essentially followed such advice.

“I don’t consider myself a prude,” he said. “And I was shocked at some of the content that was in there.”

He worries that Cosmo “has this aura of legitimacy because it is 100 years old” and once was a family magazine. “If you go into a doctor’s office, you would be shocked to see Playboy or Penthouse, and yet if there is a Cosmo there, no one would think twice about it.”

Hearst said her campaign “is not about censoring the magazine or putting it out of business. It is about getting Cosmopolitan magazine’s pornographic and harmful content out of the hands of kids — specifically tween and teen girls.”

Ombudsman useful?

As a result of these discussions and considerations, Weiler is exploring whether a revived, expanded ombudsman office may be a benefit.

“I’ve talked with the A.G.’s office about maybe having a position with a little wider scope,” he said. “It wouldn’t focus solely on pornography or sexual materials that are harmful to minors.”

He adds, “If an ordinary citizen calls up the A.G.’s office for legal advise, they can’t give it to them because the people, the taxpayers, are not their legal clients.” Its clients are state agencies and elected officials.

“You can’t call the A.G.’s office and ask for legal advise,” he said. “You can call, but when they’re done laughing, they are going to hang up on you.”

The senator adds, however, that he is a bit hesitant to push legislation to revive the ombudsman — not for fear of ridicule or resurrecting old jokes, but because of the cost.

“I’ve really tried with all my anti-pornography efforts to do it in a way that doesn’t cost taxpayers any money,” he said. “One of my hesitancies in opening this is it is a new position that would have to be funded.”

He has not opened a bill file to draft legislation yet, and says while it is not a high priority for him, it is something he is weighing.