A trade association for the adult industry is suing Utah over what it calls “the state’s unconstitutional antiporn ban” just days after one of the largest websites for adult content blocked access to users in the Beehive State.

The Free Speech Coalition — described as a “non-partisan nonprofit” group focused on “the rights and freedoms of the adult industry” — filed a complaint in federal court Wednesday over a Utah law that requires porn sites to verify the age of its users.

The law, SB287, took effect the same day the suit was filed. It was passed unanimously by the legislature in 2023, and is an attempt to ensure all users are at least 18 years old. Though websites that fail “to perform reasonable age verification methods” could also now be sued for damages that stem from a minor accessing the adult content, the law is not a “ban,” as the complaint filed Wednesday claims.

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SB287’s sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who is also a business attorney, said: “Since it’s already illegal to expose a child to hard core pornography, I think it’s important for the court to address the age verification requirement.” 

“We don’t allow children to access wine, tobacco or products online; why should porn be different?” Weiler said.

In the opening paragraph of its complaint, the coalition wrote: “Here we are again. After numerous federal court decisions invalidating as unconstitutional state and federal laws seeking to regulate or ban the publication of material harmful to minors on the internet, the Utah legislature has tried once more.”

“The new law ... places substantial burdens on Plaintiff website operators, content creators, and countless others who use the internet by requiring websites to age-verify every internet user before providing access to non-obscene material that meets the State’s murky definition of ‘material harmful to minors,’” the complaint reads.

When reached, a spokesperson for the Utah Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on active litigation.

On Monday, two days before the law took effect, Pornhub, one of the largest platforms for adult content, blocked all users from Utah and in a message posted on its site, said: “giving your ID card every time you want to visit an adult platform is not the most effective solution for protecting our users, and in fact, will put children and your privacy at risk.”

In a statement given to the Deseret News Tuesday in response to Pornhub, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he fully supports the website’s decision.

“The very least we can do as a society is to ask companies to verify the age of those viewing the pornography they produce and distribute. This unanimous, bipartisan legislation provides multiple ways to satisfy that requirement,” he said.

The lawsuit calls Utah’s law ineffective at protecting minors, who could use other routes to access adult material, including through virtual private networks, or VPNs, which can bypass location-based internet restrictions. According to Google Trends, searches for “VPN” in Utah have far exceeded other states since the law took effect, more than double that of the next state, Virginia.

What the complaint alleges

Utah’s law, the group says, is unconstitutional on two fronts — it contends it violates the First Amendment because it imposes a “content-based restriction on protected speech” but doesn’t accomplish its stated purpose because minors can “easily obtain” the content “from other sources and via other means.”

Age verification also “unconstitutionally” labels the websites as “‘adult businesses’ with all the negative implications and ramifications that follow” the complaint alleges — and by requiring prior consent, “the Act operates as a presumptively-unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.”

The coalition also argues the law runs afoul of the 14th Amendment, calling it “impermissibly vague” and saying it violates the due process clause, “intrudes upon fundamental liberty and privacy rights without being properly tailored to serve the government’s interest,” and grants exemptions for certain news organizations, which “draws impermissible content-based distinctions among persons engaged in free speech.”