Each year, Utah’s toughest issues bubble up during the 45-day Legislature. We review some that are generating political controversy, especially the hazards of social media.

Utah State School Board member Natalie Cline is under intense pressure to resign because of her social media post questioning the gender of a high school female basketball player. Although she apologized, numerous state and local officials, including school board members, condemned her actions, with many demanding she resign. As of our column deadline, the Legislature was still considering a formal response. Regardless of actions taken, how does this discord shape the politics of social media?

Pignanelli: “Cline has done something really rare, she has offended everybody.” — Former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Hinckley Report  

I am a strong proponent of the “Utah Way” as a credo that emphasizes collaboration, mutual respect and a dedication to quality. But quieter aspects of the doctrine include intolerance of unethical conduct, thereby holding officials to a higher standard of conduct.

Social media is fervently attacked for harm caused to children and teenagers. Federal and state lawmakers focus tirades towards technology companies, with attempts to prevent cyberbullying and predatory actions. But this was not a student-on-student attack or a pervert’s criminal behavior. Cline is a well-known public official who fixated on a teenage minor with intent to deliver negative attention.

Regardless of Cline’s political future, her conduct has changed policy deliberations. We now have an awful warning some Utahns with power will utilize social media to injure the vulnerable. An unequivocal, robust cultural response to this deed from community and political leaders is the best antidote to prevent future incidents. An adherence to the Utah Way demands such reaction.

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Legislators working on resolution that could result in Natalie Cline’s impeachment

Webb: The Cline episode illustrates the worst of social media. In the good old days, a boorish person could say rude things about someone else and hardly anyone would know about it. Today, using the blaring megaphone of social media, the whole world can see cruel and outrageous posts. And, just as bad, victims see disgusting comments added by mobs of cowardly people using fake names, which compound the hurt and injustice.

Social media, used properly, enable healthy connections among family members, friends and people of goodwill. But social media also provide crude, boorish people a massive forum to spew their lies and hatred.

Before social media, we would just avoid such unpleasant people. Today, it is all but impossible to do so. Reading the comments after some social media posts and news stories is like walking into a putrid swamp full of mutant, creepy creatures. Just stay away. 

So, Cline should be ashamed and she should resign. The Legislature should see that she does so, or be impeached. All those cowards who piled on with their comments should be disgusted with themselves as well.

Meanwhile, several legislators (Sen. Mike McKell, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, Rep. Jordan Teuscher and Rep. Jay Cobb) announced new legislation to control the impacts of social media on children and teens. This includes platform safety with age verification processes and prohibiting the sale of minors’ data. Another bill addresses algorithms targeted towards children. Will these pass?

Pignanelli: As evidenced by recent congressional hearings, there is bipartisan and multidemographic support for this legislation in Utah and across the country. Yet navigating around First Amendment and privacy rights sends these statutes to the courts. Congress must act soon to protect children and companies from a patchwork of state legislation. Otherwise, the beneficiaries of these bills are attorneys spending years in litigation. 

Webb: I am happy my wife and I did not have to raise children in the age of social media. It is incredibly difficult to eliminate the evils of social media while preserving free speech and social media’s positive aspects. The first line of defense is parents taking responsibility, but they need help. The Legislature should try to hold social media companies accountable. But as technology evolves much more will have to be done, especially at the federal level.   

Student athletes in public universities use name, image and likeness, or NIL, contracts to receive financial compensation. Legislators are considering how to control these endorsements but allow the agreements to remain outside public scrutiny. What are the politics of this?

Pignanelli: Few on Capitol Hill embrace lucrative endorsement deals for college athletes; however the Supreme Court has spoken. Policy deliberations are whether these are private contracts or does the public have an interest. These students compete in taxpayer-funded facilities bearing the name of our state-owned institutions. Yet, lawmakers cringe from regulations that could prevent college recruiters securing the most talented athletes. The line where these contracts end and the relationship with the universities begins is blurred.

Webb: College athletes deserve compensation. But “Wild West” NIL will destroy college athletics as we’ve known them, concentrating top-tier athletes in a handful of elite schools. So, it must be brought under control and that will take some time. The trick is avoiding state regulation that puts Utah schools at a disadvantage, so athletes go elsewhere. Sensible NIL regulation ultimately needs to be imposed on a national scale.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. His public affairs firm represents media interests and a social media company. Email: frankp@xmission.com.