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Constitutionality of Internet Porn Bill Questioned

Constitutionality of Internet Porn Bill Questioned

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Legislative staff attorneys have warned that a bill against Internet porn may be unconstitutional.

The bill sponsored by Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, would have Internet content providers rate the material on their Web sites as to whether it was potentially harmful to minors. It also would establish an adult content registry in which the attorney general would list sites that weren't rated by the content provider but still have material harmful to minors.

At their customers' request, Utah Internet service providers -- ISPs -- would have to block their access to those sites.

"The adult content registry is likely to block access to significant amounts of constitutionally protected material hosted on proxy servers that also contain material harmful to minors," the legislative review note said.

It said the restrictions placed on constitutionally protected speech "suggest that the adult content registry has a high probability of being held unconstitutional."

Dougall contends the bill would pass constitutional muster.

ISP customers would not have their access blocked unless they requested to be blocked, and companies could avoid being listed on the registry by rating the material on their Web site, he said.

"The key thing we're doing is providing education and tools that will help parents," Dougall said. "This is optional, and at the discretion of the consumer."

The bill provides civil penalties for ISPs that do not take the steps necessary to protect minors.

It also would appropriate $100,000 for a campaign aimed at helping parents prevent their children from accessing or receiving pornography.

"There is a technology gap between what parents know and what children know," Dougall said. "We need to educate parents about what's going on when their kids are online."

Attorney Brian Barnard, who handles a number of civil liberty cases, said, "This law will earn the sponsor a pat on the back for making the world a better place. But will it protect minors? Maybe. Will it violate the constitution? Probably."

This is one of the few bills this session to have a constitutional flag.

Last year, legislative leaders made it harder for the legislative staff attorneys to warn that a bill might be unconstitutional. Under the new rules, the legislative staffers can issue the warning only if they can cite specific court rulings, which this review note did.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee passed another bill that would give $60,000 to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force to hire a staffer to coordinate prevention efforts.

"We need to educate parents, libraries, churches and other groups about the dangers of Internet pornography," said sponsoring Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray. The bill now heads to the full House.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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