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Kansas moves to require porn sites to verify ages

The Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature passed the proposal Tuesday, sending it to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
Kansas moves to require porn sites to verify ages
Posted at 8:58 PM, Mar 26, 2024

Kansas is poised to require pornography websites to verify visitors are adults, a move that would follow Texas and a handful of other states despite concerns about privacy and how broadly the law could be applied.

The Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature passed the proposal Tuesday, sending it to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. The House voted for it 92-31 and the Senate approved it unanimously last month. Kelly hasn't announced her plans, but she typically signs bills with bipartisan backing, and supporters have enough votes to override a veto anyway.

At least eight states have enacted age-verification laws since 2022 — Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Utah and Virginia, and lawmakers have introduced proposals in more than 20 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and an analysis from The Associated Press of data from the Plural bill-tracking service.

Weeks ago, a federal appeals court upheld the Texas age-verification requirement as constitutional and the Oklahoma House sent a similar measure to the state Senate.

Supporters argue that they're protecting children from widespread pornography online. Oklahoma Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, a sponsor of the legislation, said pornography is dramatically more available now than when “there might be a sixth-grade boy who would find a Playboy magazine in a ditch somewhere.”

“What is commonplace in our society is for a child to be alone with their digital device in their bedroom,” said Hasenbeck, a Republican representing a rural southwest Oklahoma district.

In Kansas, some critics questioned whether the measure would violate free speech and press rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. Last year, that issue was raised in a federal lawsuit over the Texas law from the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry.

A three-judge panel of the conservative, New Orleans-based Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Texas' age-verification requirement did not violate the First Amendment. The judges concluded that such a law can stand as long as a state has a rational basis for it and states have a legitimate interest in blocking minors' access to pornography.

SEE MORE: Florida's DeSantis signs law banning social media for kids under 14

The Kansas bill would make it a violation of state consumer protection laws for a website to fail to verify that a Kansas visitor is 18 if the website has material “harmful to minors.” The attorney general then could go to court seeking a fine of up to $10,000 for each violation. Parents also could sue for damages of at least $50,000.

Under an existing Kansas criminal law, material is harmful to minors if it involves “nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse.”

But critics of the bill, mostly Democrats, argued that the law could be interpreted broadly enough that LGBTQ+ teenagers could not access information about sexual orientation or gender identity because the legal definition of sexual conduct includes acts of “homosexuality.” That means “being who we are” is defined as harmful to minors, said Rep. Brandon Woodard, who is gay and a Kansas City-area Democrat.

Woodard also said opponents don't understand "how technology works.” He said people could bypass an age-verification requirement by accessing pornography through the dark web or unregulated social media sites.

Other lawmakers questioned whether the state could prevent websites based outside Kansas from retaining people's personal information.

“The information used to verify a person’s age could fall into the hands of entities who could use it for fraudulent purposes,” said southeastern Kansas Rep. Ken Collins, one of two Republicans to vote against the bill.

Yet even critics acknowledged parents and other constituents have a strong interest in keeping minors from seeing pornography. Another southeastern Kansas Republican, Rep. Chuck Smith, chided the House because it didn't approve the bill unanimously, as the Senate did.

“Kids need to be protected," he said. "Everybody in here knows what pornography is — everybody.”


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