Utah trolled with 4,000 hoax reports of trans bathroom ban violations within days of reporting form launch

HB257, which took full effect Wednesday, requires the Utah auditor’s office to receive and investigate complaints when government entities don’t comply with the law.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Messages in support of transgender rights cover a toilet bowl during a demostration by Utah Students Unite in opposition of HB257 on the steps of the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2024.

Less than 72 hours after the launch of a reporting form to help Utah enforce its transgender bathroom ban, the Utah auditor’s office says it has received nearly 4,000 complaints — and all of them appear to be “bogus.”

“We didn’t see anything that looks credible,” Utah Auditor John Dougall said in a phone call, noting that the claims have been “pretty easy” to screen. “For example, if they have my name as a complainant, you know, I’m not complaining.”

His office created an online reporting tool to comply with Morgan Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland’s “Sex-based Designations for Privacy, Anti-bullying and Women’s Opportunities,” or HB257.

After being rushed through the Legislature and quickly signed by Gov. Spencer Cox in January, the now-law changes the legal definitions of “female” and “male” to categorize Utahns by the reproductive organs of their birth, and restricts which bathrooms and locker rooms trans people can use in government-owned buildings.

The law goes on to require the state auditor’s office to “establish a process to receive and investigate alleged violations of this chapter by a government entity,” and then notify that entity. If the violation isn’t resolved, the auditor is required to refer the issue to the Utah attorney general’s office, which can then impose fines up to $10,000 “per violation per day.”

“I would assume the Legislature probably didn’t think through what kind of public backlash might happen,” Dougall said Friday.

HB257 took full effect on May 1.

“The alleged violation must have occurred at a publicly owned or controlled facility, program, or event,” the reporting tool informs those looking to submit a report. “When possible, citizens should make a good faith effort to address and resolve concerns with the government entity before submitting a complaint to the State Auditor.”

The auditor’s office asks five questions in the form — only requiring the reporter to submit a name, email and select which government entity they are complaining about.

It also provides a field for “documents supporting your complaint,” like images or PDFs, to be added to the report.

Salt Lake City Democratic state Sen. Jen Plumb questioned on X whether it was appropriate for the office to allow reporters to attach images to their complaints.

“Apparently Utah’s solution to people feeling unsafe in restrooms is to encourage folks to take photos of & focus extreme attention on the private parts of others who are taking care of a biological need to eliminate waste? What could go wrong?” she wrote in a post.

Dougall told The Salt Lake Tribune that it’s common for his office to include such a field on complaint forms, like one for “Improper Government Activity.” He said it helps his office validate the allegations, noting, “But there are laws that prohibit taking pictures of people in restrooms.”

Earlier this week, the database of forms submitted to the auditor’s office was reportedly left accessible to the public until sometime on Thursday, 404 Media reported, meaning a password or authentication wasn’t required to see parts of the allegations.

While a journalist at 404 Media reported they did not see names or contact info in the database, “comments and image attachments were easily viewable.” Since contacting the auditor’s office, the database now requires authentication to access, according to 404 Media.

Dozens of people posted screenshots on X of themselves submitting jokes and memes through the form.

Trans activist and journalist Erin Reed reported that attempts in other states to launch what she called “snitch lines” have likewise been flooded with memes in protest.

The new Utah law does not make it a crime to send false reports to the auditor’s office, but repeatedly falsely alleging to emergency personnel that the law was broken can result in a class B misdemeanor.

Utah’s latest law targeting the transgender community — which comprises less than 1% of Utahns — defines a “women’s restroom” and “men’s restroom” each as spaces only “designated for the exclusive use” of females and males, respectively.

The law also bars trans people from using “changing rooms” — locker rooms, showers and dressing rooms — that align with their gender identity in government-owned and controlled facilities. That prohibition also extends to public schools. Some trans adults are allowed to enter gender-specific spaces in limited circumstances: if they have had both bottom surgery — a costly and invasive procedure — and amended their birth certificate, which is a legal impossibility for people born in some states.

In addition to government entities potentially facing fines if they violate the law, trans people in Utah can face criminal penalties if they use spaces that align with their gender identity.

An investigation by The Tribune found multiple instances of elected officials sharing misinformation about trans people to support the passage of HB257. Those included claims that tens of thousands of parents complained to the Utah State Board of Education about privacy issues, that hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people had gone down and false portrayals of criminal cases.

Politics editor Jeff Parrott contributed to this story.