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Utah's governor vetoes social media moderation bill, signs porn filter bill

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Posted at 6:06 PM, Mar 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-24 15:23:35-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox has vetoed a bill that would have required social media companies to more clearly state their moderation terms and explain why posts are removed for violating them.

At the same time he signed an equally controversial bill that requires every phone, tablet and computer sold in Utah to eventually come with pre-installed porn-filtering software.

The first veto of his administration went to Senate Bill 228, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who also happens to be the governor's brother-in-law.

"Whatever course of action we take to protect online speech should seek to fully uphold the values enshrined in the First Amendment," Gov. Cox said in a letter to House and Senate leadership explaining his veto.

The bill was controversial from the start and presented legal challenges. Sen. McKell argued that it would have required social media companies to be more transparent in their moderation policies. Critics argued that it was a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Read the governor's veto letter here:

Governor veto letter

Lawmakers deliberated whether social media is private property or a public square, before ultimately deciding to pass the bill and send it to Gov. Cox's desk. Tuesday's veto is considered "friendly" as it was pre-negotiated with the sponsor and House and Senate Republican leaders.

Sen. McKell said he intended to open a new bill file on May 5 — the day new bills can be filed — to work on teh same issue.

"I appreciate the commitment from stakeholders who have agreed to work with the Legislature to craft a better solution that will increase transparency within social media corporations," he said in a statement. "Censorship practices are un-American and likely unconstitutional. In Utah, we defend the right to freely express opinions and views, regardless of political or religious affiliation. The outcome of SB 228 is not ideal; however, the issue of free speech and online censorship remains a priority and policy will continue to be refined throughout interim."

The Libertas Institute, a libertarian-leaning group that vigorously opposed the bill, said it was ready to keep talking.

"We appreciate the willingness of policymakers to hit pause on this bill and try to achieve consensus with stakeholders while addressing the Legislature’s concerns. We look forward to the dialogue in the months ahead," said Libertas president Connor Boyack in a text message to FOX 13.

Meanwhile, Gov. Cox signed Rep. Susan Pulsipher's House Bill 72, which requires every technological device sold in the state to come pre-loaded with porn filtering devices. Gov. Cox signaled his support for the bill because he believed pornography causes harm to youth, even though tech companies warned of litigation over it.

Even though it potentially faced similar legal challenges and was considered unconstitutional, the bill was watered down to only take effect after five other states passed similar legislation. Gov. Cox told reporters at his monthly news conference that provision in the law made him more comfortable with the bill.

Here are the other bills Gov. Cox signed into law on Tuesday:

HB72Device Filter Amendments. Pulsipher, S.
HB94Microenterprise Home Kitchen Amendments. Watkins, C.
HB136Initiative and Referenda Modifications. Teuscher, J.
HB218 Reporting Requirement Amendments. King, B.
HB244First Class County Highway Road Funds Amendments. Dunnigan, J.
HB326Performance Reporting and Efficiency Requirements. Ballard, M.
HB365State Agency Realignment. Ray, P.
HB415Executive Order Review Process Amendments. Lyman, P.
SB137Alcoholic Beverage Control Retail Store Amendments. Davis, G.
SB172Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health Amendments. Mayne, K.