Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Among many criticisms, Utah social media law imposes sweeping First Amendment restrictions

Though intended to protect minors on social media, Utah law may unconstitutionally prevent some adults from accessing digital content
Celia Hiorns

March 20, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed two bills into law — H.B. 311 and S.B. 152 — which together form the Utah Social Media Regulation Act. The House bill prevents social media companies from “using a design or feature that causes a minor to have an addiction to the company’s social media platform,” while the Senate bill requires age verification and mandates parental consent for users under 18.

The Republican-sponsored law aims to protect children from the negative effects of social media. More broadly, they want to regulate social media companies, which they say have very minimal restrictions, according to NPR. But, challengers posit potential constitutional issues with the law in its application.

In an interview with the PBS NewsHour, Utah state Sen. Mike McKell — who introduced the legislation — cited health concerns as the justification for such restrictions. A mental health crisis among teenagers, he said, especially young girls, can be attributed to the conduct of social media companies in data collection and targeted advertising.


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Though protecting minors from the potential side effects of social media seems like a noble cause, there are serious First Amendment issues that may make this law unconstitutional.

According to the Senate bill, for accounts held by minors in Utah, certain social media companies must restrict some direct messaging, prohibit suggesting ads, accounts or content and provide a parent or guardian with access to the minor’s account.

Based on an evaluation by NetChoice, a free expression advocacy group, this kind of restriction is content-based since minors will be prevented from accessing certain digital material based on its subject matter. Under First Amendment law, content-based government restrictions are subject to strict scrutiny when evaluating their constitutionality.

Strict scrutiny requires a law to serve a compelling government interest and to be narrowly tailored to serve only that interest. While some could argue protecting minors on social media could be a government interest, the Utah law is absolutely not narrowly tailored. In other words, more people than just minors will be prevented from accessing certain digital content — a blatant First Amendment violation.

A 1997 Supreme Court ruling in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union demonstrated why such restrictions are unconstitutional. The Child Online Protection Act, which was intended to prevent minors from accessing online pornography, prevented the publication of any content that was considered offensive for children under “community standards.”

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The Supreme Court ruled that the law prevented adults from viewing content they had a constitutional right to access, and there were less restrictive means to achieve the intended goal of protecting children. In other words, COPA’s sweeping restrictions placed undue restrictions on adults that extended beyond constitutional governmental restriction.

A similar issue arises when it’s understood how age verification might be enforced by social media companies under the new Utah law. Though they’re still exploring ideas, one method that may be used to verify age is through the use of government IDs. This is a critical issue for the many adults — particularly the 95,000 undocumented immigrants living in Utah.

Utah actually does provide a pathway for undocumented immigrants to obtain a “driving privilege card,” which is a government-issued identification method that allows undocumented immigrants to lawfully operate a motor vehicle. 

But, the law clearly states that these documents may not be used by a government agency as an age verification or proof of identity. So if government-issued identification is required to create accounts on social media platforms, undocumented immigrants in Utah will simply be restricted from accessing them.

This means a large group of adults would not have access to certain social media information. Perhaps more critically, they would have less ability to communicate with others. In the modern era, social media is a major source of political organization and mobilization, especially for protesting against the government. 

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In effect, undocumented adults, who already face barriers in accessing various resources, may be systematically restricted from accessing certain social media sites. Even if a work-around is identified, there may be a chilling effect on the use of social media if people fear their immigration status may be exposed.

With such insidious consequences, this bill bears national significance. Though such restrictions have not yet succeeded on a national scale, there is reason to believe Republicans in state legislatures across the country will work to impose similar measures. As all kinds of social media restrictions spread throughout the country, Wisconsin, which has a Republican-controlled legislature, may be at particular risk.

Ultimately, recent social media restrictions in Utah present serious First Amendment issues. Since lawmakers cannot prove whether the new laws will be narrowly tailored to meet the government interest of protecting minors, many adults may lose critical free speech rights as a result. The use of social media — a critical mobilization tool — may be chilled.

In recent years, lawmakers across the country have taken action toward greater regulations for social media companies, sometimes with good intentions to benefit minors. But, this increase in skepticism is also having sweeping impacts on rights to privacy, expression and free speech — a concerning precedent for the future.

Celia Hiorns ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.

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