The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, representing four Utah residents, sued Utah officials over the state’s social media legislation.
The suit was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. It alleges that the Utah Social Media Regulation Act “imposes an elaborate surveillance regime and mandates censorship, irrespective of parents’ views.” It names Katie Hass, director of the Utah Department of Commerce’s Division of Consumer Protection, and Attorney General Sean Reyes as defendants.
SB152 and HB311, which were both passed by the Utah Legislature, comprise the Utah Social Media Regulation Act. Among other tenets, the act imposes a curfew on minors’ social media, requires social media companies to verify the ages of Utah users and blocks minors’ accounts from appearing in search results. It’s expected to go into effect on March 1. Rep. Jordan Teuscher has a bill in progress with amendments to the Social Media Regulation Act for the 2024 legislative session.
Teuscher’s amendments are in progress, so the bill isn’t yet publicly available. At a press conference in late December, Gov. Spencer Cox had indicated the state was prepared to defend its social media legislation amid legal challenges. “We will vigorously defend these laws, we are prepared for it,” he said.
FIRE’s suit comes after another group’s suit. In mid-December, tech industry group NetChoice filed a suit challenging the act, describing it as “an unconstitutional attempt to regulate both minors’ and adults’ access to — and ability to engage in — protected expression.”
The Utah Attorney General’s office is reviewing the suit.
“Utah ignored less restrictive avenues or media literacy efforts, immediately resorting to a sledgehammer of a law,” FIRE attorney Kelley Bregenzer said. “Utah’s clumsy attempt to childproof social media should be unfriended immediately.”
The suit filed by FIRE alleges that the act violates the First Amendment as well as the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. The suit seeks that a judge invalidate the act.
The plaintiffs were described in the suit as Utah residents whose communications on social media would be “disrupted by the act.”
Each of the plaintiffs was reported in the suit as using social media in a different way. One plaintiff is a high school student who, the suit said, uses social media to communicate with her peers for various school-related matters like a robotics club. Two of the plaintiffs help individuals in polygamist communities via social media and the other plaintiff runs a YouTube channel discussing mental health and LGBTQ perspectives.
“They are acutely aware of the ways social media enable young people to obtain information and find community, particularly for those who are isolated or otherwise marginalized. Through their personal experiences, plaintiffs know how minors’ access to social media can literally be lifesaving and are concerned that the Legislature chose to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” the suit claimed. “If the law takes effect, each of them will be deprived of basic constitutional rights.”
Pointing toward how social media is used by politicians to communicate with voters, as well as educational resources, social media as a source of news and the way it’s used among young people to find community, the suit said “social media is integral to modern life, for both teens and adults, across human activity.”
The suit claimed there are issues with the scope of the act, the age-verification requirement, the curfew, the content restrictions, the requirement for parental consent and penalties for violation, among other tenets.
On the grounds of concerns about data collection and the effectiveness of the age-verification requirement, the suit said “the Act forces users — including adults — either to give up their anonymity and privacy or to forego speaking.”
The suit also claimed that the act would employ government censorship. “The Social Media Act substitutes the judgment of government censors for parental discretion,” the suit said. “Far from protecting children, the evidence indicates that limiting young people’s access to social media will harm them and deprive them of fundamental rights.”
Co-counsel Ambika Kumar of Davis Wright Tremaine said, “This law harms the very constituency it purports to protect and unconstitutionally limits the speech of all Utahns. The First Amendment protects against exactly this kind of governmental overreach. We look forward to vindicating our clients’ rights by getting an order stopping this misguided law from taking effect.”
As the legislative session unfolds and Teuscher’s amendments are voted on, it’s possible that the act could change. According to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, 49% of Utahns said they strongly agreed with the law requiring that children obtain permission from the parents before joining a social media platform, while 30% said they somewhat agreed. Along partisan lines, 82% of Republicans were supportive of this measure and 71% of Democrats expressed support.
The act came as Cox and other state legislators have focused on the impact of social media on the mental health of young people. Leana S. Wen, contributing columnist for The Washington Post, was among those who praised Cox for signing this legislation.
“The point, though, is that the default setting should change from unregulated use of social media to careful parental oversight,” Wen wrote. “Utah’s bold efforts offer a road map for other states that are serious about addressing not just the manifestations of the teen mental health crisis but also a root cause of it.”
Critics of the legislation, like Electronic Frontier Foundation activist director Jason Kelley, have claimed that this kind of legislation isn’t the proper solution to address broad concerns. “Laws that insert the state into a family’s right to decide what level of independence a young person has, and block young people from accessing legal speech,” won’t solve problems, Kelley said.
Cox has described the legislation as giving tools to parents and pushed back on the idea that it was giving parental control to the state. “Well, look, we’re not telling parents how to parent,” Cox told The New York Times. “The law empowers parents. It doesn’t tell parents what they have to do at all. Again, if they want their kids to be on social media at 4 in the morning, they have the ability to allow their kids to do that.”