Utah House votes to require warning labels on porn

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) House Speaker Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, delivers opening remarks at the start of the 2020 legislative session at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Monday, Jan. 26.

The distributors of obscene material would be required to include warnings on their products or face lawsuits and fines under a bill that earned overwhelming support from the Utah House on Tuesday.

Representatives voted 60-12 in favor of HB243, which seeks to curtail the prominence of pornography in the state — and particularly its reach to children — by requiring the inclusion of a warning label on printed materials or a 15-second advisory ahead of online content.

Failing to do so could result in a $2,500 fine for each violation, with individual Utahns able to collect a portion of those fees by initiating legal action against bad actors.

“This is not just harmful materials to minors, this is obscene content," said Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, the bill’s sponsor. “We, as a society, have deemed it to not have any redeemable value.”

Several members of the chamber praised the “creativity" of Brammer’s proposal during debate of the bill. Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said that past anti-pornography efforts have focused on web filtering software or internet service providers, while HB243 ties liability back to the original content providers.

“There’s probably not a soul in this chamber that doesn’t have some sad story about children getting access to materials they should not have to deal with,” Waldrip said.

And Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, said the bill would hopefully result in less exposure of children to pornographic content.

“Utah, of all states, is a pro-family, family-friendly state,” Seegmiller said. “If any place should lead out and begin to get it right on this issue, it should be our state and us on behalf of the people we represent.”

The Utah Legislature in 2016 declared pornography to be a public health crisis, and various bills have been sponsored since then aimed at restricting or limiting access to obscene materials.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the predominant faith in Utah in which nearly 90% of lawmakers are devout members, denounces pornography as “a tool of the adversary," warning that it can lead to depression, obsession and compulsive behaviors.

The warning label envisioned in Brammer’s bill would declare that exposure to pornography negatively impacts brain development and the ability to maintain intimate relationships, and can lead to addictive sexual behavior, low self-esteem and the objectification of others.

One pornography website responded to the bill by issuing a warning to Utah users that its content “may lead to decreased stress, increased happiness, and lower rates of teen pregnancy."

Most of the representatives who opposed the bill were members of the House Democratic Caucus, although the vote did not strictly fall along party lines.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he was concerned about the legal specifics in the bill, such as a provision that allows citizen litigants to be awarded attorney’s fees if they successfully litigate a pornography distributors, but does not provide distributors a similar award against meritless lawsuits.

“The attorney fee provision only running one way is concerning to me,” King, an attorney, said.

Brammer said his bill, if enacted, would not solve every problem related to obscene materials, or eradicate pornography from the state, but that it would “move the ball down the field.”

“I think it will make a difference,” Brammer said.

HB243 will now move to the Senate for consideration.