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Federal judge guts Utah Internet law

Associated Press Published: May 18, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge has overturned a key part of a Utah law that aimed to protect children from harmful online material.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson's order expressly forbids any prosecution under the law, except when someone sends inappropriate images or language directly to a child through email, text or instant messaging.

Benson said it was a violation of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment for Utah to require website operators to tag words or images that might be considered harmful to minors.

In theory, the tags would make it possible for Internet service providers to filter objectionable or pornographic material. The ISPs were supposed to provide software filters to any parents who ask. But Utah's law had been put on hold by a lawsuit filed in 2005.

Benson said Utah must pay the legal fees of organizations that challenged the law, including national trade groups for booksellers and the Freedom to Read Foundation. Utah artist Nathan Florence, who operates a website, joined the lawsuit.

Utah planned to leave website operators open to fines of $10,000 a day for failing to rate objectionable material for removal by software filters before viewing.

That requirement in a much-amended 2005 law has been made irrelevant by better and cheaper software that doesn't require tags to block words or images on websites, said Benson, whose order was filed Wednesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it was trying to negotiate a settlement with the Utah Attorney General's Office on less objectionable parts of the sweeping law.

Benson's order removes a "cloud cast over Internet speech," said John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, which feared its own website content on gay rights could leave the organization open to prosecution.

"This is a critical victory for free speech," said David Horowitz, executive director of the Media Coalition, which represents trade associations of librarians, booksellers and other publishers of graphic and comic books.

"This declaratory judgment makes clear that adult-to-adult communications on the Internet, and through other electronic means, cannot be restricted simply because minors also access the Internet and other electronic communications," Horowitz said.

Benson's order brings Utah law into line with years of legal precedent governing the Internet, said Emma Llansó, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C.

"It also underscores that the best approaches to protecting children online rely on user empowerment tools," she said.

Other plaintiffs joining the lawsuit were the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. They were represented by New York media lawyers Michael Bamberger and Richard Zuckerman.