The ethical justification for any body of law is that it protects the weak from the strong. A bill now before the Utah Legislature is apparently intended to do exactly the opposite, and thus should be tossed out at the earliest opportunity.
House Bill 330 is a measure that would make it illegal in this state, as it already is in 12 other states, for one participant in a conversation to record that exchange without first giving notice to, and receiving consent from, the other party or parties.
Out of any context, that might not seem like a bad idea, or even a controversial one. But nothing is properly understood out of context.
And the context here is that the bill would serve the interests of those who are in power — more specifically, those who abuse their power — at the expense of those who are trying to defend themselves or expose wrongdoing.
Alarm bells were sounded around here particularly as the bill comes as members and critics — and critical members — of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are increasingly worried about what may be happening in the interviews that children and teenagers have with their bishops.
There is justified worry that, sometimes, those conversations may stray into areas that are not appropriate fodder for a chat between a powerful adult and a defenseless child. Areas that include sexuality and sexual feelings. Topics that are likely, at best, to be embarrassing and, at the very worst, to devolve into some kind of harassment or abuse.
News that the LDS Church supports the bill is enough to raise concern that the organization’s interest is to protect its officials from being called out on such misbehaviors.
That matters a lot, because in cases where children are subject to abusive or just inappropriate behavior by adults, a horrific but effective threat used to keep them quiet is that, even if they are brave enough to come forward, no one will believe them. No one will take the word of an adolescent over that of a respected adult.
A recording levels that playing field.
There are many other examples of times when recordings that were made without the knowledge of one party to a conversation served the interests of justice, the common good or, at the very least, transparency in politics. They include everything from Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent speech to remarks made by Gov. Gary Herbert selling himself as “Available Jones” to campaign donors.
Not that there isn’t risk in the status quo. Recordings can also be used to blackmail people, perpetrators and victims. They can be deceptively edited or taken out of context.
On balance, though, it is clear that the point of HB330 is not to hold the powerful to account, but to protect them from it. For that reason, the bill deserves to be dropped.