Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has vetoed bill HB 353. That bill would have punished sellers for “violating” what were previously voluntary age restrictions. In his letter to the Utah Speaker of the House David Clark and Speaker of the Senate, Huntsman writes:
While protecting children from inappropriate materials is a laudable goal, the language of this bill is so broad that it likely will be struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause and/or the First Amendment.
A very laudable decision. You can read the entire letter here.
Amendments to Utah’s Truth in Advertising have been passed by both houses of the legislature and await action by the Governor. The new bill would make it a deceptive trade practice to “provide a good or service labeled with an age restriction or recommendation” to someone under the age specified. The law provides penalties up to $2000 plus attorneys fees, for each violation.
NCAC is deeply concerned about the bill. In our view, the bill takes a voluntary effort by manufacturers to provide consumers with information and turns it into a mechanism to deprive minors of their First Amendment rights. The materials that are primarily targeted by the amendment – DVDs, video games, and CDs – are fully protected by the First Amendment, and it is perfectly legal for minors to purchase and own them.
Apparently a lot of legislators don’t like these materials. But not everyone agrees with that view, and, as many courts have found, there is no persuasive evidence that the material is harmful to kids or society, so there’s no basis for the state, instead of parents, to decide what young people should be able to buy.
Ironically, the legislation could cause more harm than good, by depriving parents of information to make informed decisions. Private rating systems such as the ones used to label movies, music and video games, are purely voluntary. The industry could decide not to rate its products if the ratings started to generate lawsuits.
There’s also the disturbing possibility that other materials will be affected by the law. For example, many books contain an “age…recommendation.” Could booksellers be subject to penalties if they advertise that a book is recommended for readers aged 9 – 12, and sell it to 8 year olds. What about publishers who sell books recommended for one age group to schools that will use it for younger students? What about the librarian who lets a 12 year old borrow a move that is advertised as PG 13? These possibilities may not have been intended by the legislators who voted for the bill, but the language they chose could potentially apply in these and similar situations.
The industry has voluntarily provided parents with information to make choices that reflect their beliefs and values. Apparently the sponsors of the bill don’t trust parents. Instead, they’d rather rely on industry rating boards to decide what kids can and can’t buy.
If you are concerned about this bill, you can express your concerns to Governor Huntsman, State Capitol Complex, PO Box 142220, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-2220.
If you want to weigh in, do it quickly. Unless the Governor vetoes the bill by April 1, it will become law.
Read NCAC’s letter to Governor Huntsman.
Image by sean dreilinger