The March 23 deadline to sign bills passed by the legislature is looming for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. Dozens still await his signature, but there are likely none that Cox will veto, he alluded on Thursday, telling reporters there had been 35 to 40 bills on a potential veto list at one point.

“All of them either died, didn’t pass, or were changed substantially. So that entire list got down to zero,” he told reporters during his monthly news conference.

Among the remaining bills are several that have spurred controversy, including HB469, which would allow for year-round mountain lion hunting, HB209, which requires a birth certificate to play high school sports, and SB152, which will require Utahns to prove their age to use certain social media platforms.

The latter is expected to result in lawsuits from tech companies over First Amendment concerns. But Cox, who emerged as a staunch advocate for curbing social media use among teens this session, said on Thursday: “They will lose in court.”

Cox expects any potential litigation to go before a higher court. While opponents to government-imposed social media restrictions cite case law, particularly Reno v. ACLU which in 1996 declared the internet a free speech zone, the governor says those decisions are outdated.

“We have new facts about the internet and about these social media platforms that were not available when those cases were decided. The internet is a very different thing, social media didn't even exist when most of those cases were decided,” he said. “And so there’s no doubt there’s going to be legal challenges. The same type of legal challenges we saw with big tobacco, the same type of legal challenges that we saw with big pharma and opioids, and so I’m not going to back down from a potential legal challenge.”

The bill has garnered criticism by free speech advocates — on Wednesday, Cox even sparred with First Amendment lawyer Ari Cohn on Twitter, who told the governor it was “dreadfully disappointing that you think government can condition the First Amendment rights of anyone under 18 on the prior consent of a parent.”

Gov. Spencer Cox holds his monthly news conference at PBS Utah in the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 16, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Cox on Thursday likened it to the Second Amendment, telling reporters that even the most unrelenting gun advocates wouldn’t support 12 year olds being able to buy an assault rifle.

“And yet, the constitution guarantees a Second Amendment right to Americans,” he said. “... I believe it’s similar in that again, this is something that is killing our kids and I’m being told by these companies and a few First Amendment lawyers out there that you have no choice. You just have to let the kids die. There’s nothing that you can do to help them. That’s just not true, we do this in lots of different areas.”

Anecdotally, Cox says the parents, teachers and teenagers he speaks with point to rising levels of depression and anxiety among young people, and blame social media.

“They know it’s social media. The addictive qualities of social media that are intentionally being placed by these companies to get our kids addicted,” he said.

Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart recently introduced a similar bill in the U.S. House, and Cox said he would prefer to have Congress tackle the issue, rather than individual states.

Should children under 16 be denied access to social media apps?

“But if they're not going to do it, we are, and I think this helps Congress have the ability to do this when they see states start to pick this up,” Cox said.

In addition to SB152 is HB311, which would prohibit certain algorithms that tech companies use to foster social media addictions. Cox says he is excited to sign both.

New restrictions on abortions

Cox this week signed HB467, which would stop licensing new abortion clinics starting May 2 and by January 2024 will ban all previously legal abortions in health clinics.

Now, people seeking an abortion still permitted under Utah law — which is restricted to cases of rape, incest or where the health and safety of the mother is at risk — will do so in a hospital.

The law has drawn scrutiny from groups like Planned Parenthood, which says it will make it more difficult for women seeking an abortion, despite qualifying for one under the new guidelines.

“Planned Parenthood Association of Utah is exploring all options to preserve access to abortion in Utah ahead of HB467’s effective date,” Karrie Galloway, Planned Parenthood president and CEO, said in a news release Wednesday.

Cox said the bill will add clarity to Utah’s abortion trigger law passed in 2019.

“We were asked by abortion providers to clarify the law because ... depending on the court case moving forward, the trigger law that was passed several years ago would have enacted a de facto complete abortion ban because there wasn't clarity around rape, incest and the health and safety of the mother,” he said. “So this bill clarifies that, so those abortions can continue. They will continue in a hospital setting.”

Cox says most Utahns agree with diversity, equity and inclusion bills

The legislature introduced four bills this year targeting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, though only one ultimately passed and was signed by Cox — HB427, which places limitations on what teachers can say regarding racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

That law, Cox says, changed “drastically” during the session. It initially made his veto list, he told reporters, but the substitute bill that was eventually passed is something that “most Utahns, if they just read the language of that bill, it makes sense to them.”

“We should not be scared of history, especially the bad parts of our history. We have to teach those things. But that’s very different, all that bill says is you can’t tell white kids that they're inherently racist. And I think most people would agree with that,” Cox said, adding that “I don’t think it will impact 99% of what’s already being taught in the classroom.”  

Still, the Utah Education Association called for him to veto the bill, which he signed Wednesday.

Free public transit, hunting mountain lions and more

  • Cox said his office has “gotten a lot of calls” about HB469, a bill proposed by Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, that would allow anyone with a license to hunt mountain lions year round. Hunters and environmentalists alike have raised concerns over the bill, but on Thursday Cox said he’s “less concerned than I was as I’ve gotten more information about it” and that he will make a final decision next week.

“Idaho has had this in place for a long time, and the population there seems to be doing fine,” Cox said.

  • Cox said he would have liked to see the legislature enact a bill eliminating fares for public transportation. It’s an issue for the 2024 session, he hopes, saying: “I’m going to keep annoying them with it.”
  • Pushing back on assertions that the legislature “punted” on bills concerning the Great Salt Lake, Cox highlighted two laws: HB491, which would create a Great Salt Lake “commissioner,” and HB277, requiring the state water engineer to quantify the water savings producers have made. “All of these things have a compounding effect,” Cox said.