A Washington, D.C., First Amendment advocacy group representing four Utah residents last week filed a lawsuit against the state’s attorney general and consumer protection director over a law passed last year that limits how and when minors can access social media.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, on Friday filed the lawsuit against Katie Hass, director of the Utah Department of Commerce’s consumer protection division, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who enforces the law, called the Social Media Act.
The law, which Gov. Spencer Cox signed in March of 2023 and is set to take effect on March 1, prevents minors from accessing social media apps such as Instagram, TikTok or Facebook without parental consent. FIRE argues that the law, which will require all social media users in the state to verify their ages, will have a chilling effect on free speech.
Bob Corn-Revere, chief counsel at FIRE representing the case’s four plaintiffs, told StateScoop in an interview that all methods of age verification for social media platforms are concerning because they can discourage the participation of adults who don’t want to share certain personal information with social media companies.
On that basis, the suit states Utah’s law violates the First Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Commerce Clause of the constitution.
The plaintiffs, three adults who escaped abusive polygamous communities and one high school student, argue that the law will cause more harm than good. According to the lawsuit, the adult plaintiffs rely on social media to provide information to minors who are at risk of abuse.
How Utah will require social media users to verify their ages is still up for debate — the proposed rules for verification are open for public comment period until Feb. 5. Proposed methods include biometric facial scanning, entering partial Social Security numbers and uploading scans of state-issued IDs.
“So it’s basically a requirement that everybody show their papers at the door to be able to engage in speech on the open internet,” Corn-Revere said. “The state has begun a rulemaking where it explores various methods of age verification, and you can take issue with the various approaches, but either way, the general requirement is where the problem is.”
Age verification has been implemented in other states, including Louisana, which requires adult content websites to verify users’ ages.
And while Louisiana has fended off similar legal disputes, challenges to social media laws limiting minors’ access have found success in other states. A federal judge temporarily halted a similar law in Ohio two weeks ago, citing its encroachment on free speech and its overly broad nature. In Arkansas, a nearly identical social media age-verification law was blocked from going into effect last September.
“That’s one of the things that has prompted other courts to strike down age-verification regimes, because they simply deter many adults from engaging in the media because they don’t want to take the risk of having to enter their personally identifiable information as a condition of being able to use the service,” Corn-Revere said.
Corn-Revere said that in addition to hoping for Utah’s law to be struck down, his organization would also policymakers to explore the “legitimate concerns” about how social media is used. He pointed to states like New Jersey, which includes media literacy training for its K-12 students.
“To provide support and education for those kinds of private and technological solutions would be a good first step,” Corn-Revere said. “So if states really want to make a positive difference, don’t you think we should start with media literacy education?”