Plaintiff Hannah Zoulek is a Utah high school student who fears the new law will chill Utahns’ speech online.
SALT LAKE CITY, Jan. 16, 2024 — In Utah, government gatekeepers are restricting social media access through one-size-fits-all legislation that violates the rights of all Utah residents and ignores the way people use technology in the real world. Want to hop on Facebook? Facial recognition. Comment on Goodreads? We’ll need the last four digits of your social. Pinterest? ID, please.
On Jan. 12, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression sued Utah officials over the new law that requires every social media user in the state to verify their age. The law second-guesses Utah families’ judgments about how to manage young people’s social media use, imposing a heavy-handed state dictate riddled with unconstitutional restrictions.
“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,” said Hannah Zoulek, a queer-identifying high school student who uses they/them pronouns and fears the law will chill Utahns’ speech online. “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.”
COURTESY PHOTOS OF HANNAH FOR MEDIA
Hannah is bringing the lawsuit along with three other plaintiffs including a YouTuber who posts videos about cooking and mental health and two online advocates who escaped a polygamous community and now provide resources to those in similar situations. Under the new law, which takes effect March 1, every Utah resident will have to verify their age in order to use a social media account — and those under 18 must obtain express permission from their parents. Several of the proposed methods include biometric facial scanning, entering the last four digits of a resident’s Social Security number, or uploading a driver’s license.
“Throughout history, censorship has always been the answer to moral panics inspired by new technologies,” said FIRE Chief Counsel Bob Corn-Revere. “But censorship is the wrong response to concerns presented by new cultural phenomena, whether the printing press in the 1400s, comic books in the ‘50s, video games in the ‘90s, or social media today.”
Plaintiffs Lu Ann Cooper and Jessica Christensen co-founded an organization called Hope After Polygamy that connects individuals who are members of, or who have left, polygamous communities with educational resources, often through social media. They know all too well that at-risk youth will disproportionately shoulder the law’s harmful effects. The new rules hinder minors’ ability to find support and connect with people outside their existing circle, a key feature of social media for vulnerable youth who lack such support at home and school.
“I was raised in an abusive polygamous family being groomed and coerced to marry my first cousin when I was only 15 years old,” said Cooper. “Since escaping, I’ve used social media to provide resources to others in difficult or dangerous situations. This law will only hurt children in similar situations.”
Not only will the law limit freedom of speech and association for Utah residents, but it also encompasses such a broad range of sites that many different platforms could be affected, from traditional social media sites like Facebook and Pinterest to other community sites like Goodreads and Allrecipes.
“The state of Utah is trying to tell me how to raise my kids,” Cooper said. “This law interferes with my right as a mom to determine how my kids use social media, which each family should decide for itself.”
FIRE’s lawsuit asks Utah to halt enforcement of the law and declare it invalid. Other states — including New Jersey and Louisiana — are proposing and enacting similar laws that threaten Americans’ fundamental rights. In Arkansas and Ohio, courts have blocked enforcement of these laws.
“Utah ignored less restrictive avenues or media literacy efforts, immediately resorting to a sledgehammer of a law,” said FIRE attorney Kelley Bregenzer. “Utah’s clumsy attempt to childproof social media should be unfriended immediately.”
Ambika Kumar, Adam Sieff, David Gossett, and Chelsea Kelly from Davis Wright Tremaine LLP are serving as co-counsel for the lawsuit, with Jerome Mooney of Weston, Garrou and Mooney serving as local counsel.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
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Jeff Kosseff is an associate professor of cybersecurity law in the United States Naval Academy’s Cyber Science Department. He is the author of four books including his most recent, “.” He has also written books about anonymous speech and Section…
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