Utah residents suing state over soon-to-be enacted social media restrictions

Jan 16, 2024, 5:24 PM

Hannah Zoulek...

Hannah Zoulek, a Utah teen, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Friday against Utah’s Social Media Regulation Act. (Guillaume Bigot)

(Guillaume Bigot)

SALT LAKE CITY — A civil liberties group has filed a lawsuit against Utah’s social media regulations on behalf of several residents, including a teenage Utahn, who allege the regulations violate protections for freedom of speech.

Attorneys with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed the complaint in federal court on Friday, comparing concerns of social media’s alleged harm to teen users to moral panics over “penny dreadfuls,” early movies, comic books or video games.

The Social Media Regulation Act passed through a pair of Utah bills in 2023, requires that minors get consent from a parent or guardian to sign up for a social media account — in effect requiring all users in the state to verify their age. It also requires social media companies to treat minor accounts differently than adult accounts by limiting who can see them in search results, disabling direct messaging with certain accounts and creating an overnight “curfew” when minors cannot access their accounts.

“The Utah Social Media Regulations Act is the latest in this pantheon of well-intentioned but misguided laws,” the lawsuit states. “Although the act purports to aid parental authority, it imposes ‘what the state thinks parents ought to want’ … while ignoring the ways parents can already regulate their children’s access to and use of social media.”

The plaintiffs of the lawsuit are four Utah residents, including Hannah Paisley Zoulek, a high school student who previously testified against the legislation during last year’s session. Zoulek said social media is integral in being able to connect with “other communities to which they would not otherwise have access,” the lawsuit states.

“This law will require me and my mom to give sensitive personal information to major tech companies simply to access platforms that have been an integral part of my development, giving me a sense of community and really just helping me figure out who I am as a person,” Zoulek stated. “Growing up already isn’t easy, and the government making it harder to talk with people who have similar experiences to mine just makes it even more difficult.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s lawsuit is not the first to target the regulations, which are scheduled to go into effect on March 1. NetChoice, a tech industry group, filed a separate suit against the state last month, asking the courts to halt the law before it goes into effect.

NetChoice celebrated the latest complaint against the state, and a spokesman described the law as “government overreach.”

“It is incredible to see Utahns standing up for their free speech rights online,” Chris Marchese, director of the NetChoice Litigation Center, said. “This case is very important for policymakers to understand the impact of inflicting unconstitutional legislation on their constituents.”

The plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit argue that social media is “integral to modern life,” and an essential platform for gathering news from policymakers like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Spencer Cox. The lawsuit also says platforms are valuable resources for teens like Zoulek, who has used social media “to connect with queer youth and read stories reflecting that community’s experiences.”

When it comes to age verification, the lawsuit says companies would be required to collect information from users to determine if they are of appropriate age, tying “users’ social media accounts to their identities, thus limiting anonymity online.”

Although the state’s rule for age verification requires that companies “may not collect more than the least amount of data reasonably necessary” to verify ages and requires that companies permanently delete data as quickly as possible, within 45 days, privacy advocates have still expressed concern about the scope of the requirements.

The three other plaintiffs in the case are also Utah residents. Jessica Christensen “escaped from a powerful and abusive polygamous family at age (15),” according to the lawsuit, and is an advocate for former members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church. Another plaintiff, Lu Ann Cooper, of Roy, is the president of the organization Hope After Polygamy, which uses social media to provide outreach, the lawsuit states.

Midvale resident Val Snow, who is also a plaintiff, produces a YouTube channel covering mental health and LGBTQ perspectives, according to the complaint.

Katie Hass, the director of the Utah Department of Commerce’s Division of Consumer Protection, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes are defendants in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs ask the court to rule that the regulations violate the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and are preempted by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. They ask the courts to prevent either of the defendants from enforcing the regulations and seek attorneys’ fees related to litigation of the case.

Utah has previously filed lawsuits against the parent companies of TikTok, Facebook and Instagram. Cox and other state leaders have long anticipated that the regulations would draw court challenges, but they have also expressed confidence that the law will be upheld.

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Utah residents suing state over soon-to-be enacted social media restrictions