An amended version of a bill that would require that warning labels be placed on obscene or pornographic material made it through the Utah State Senate on Friday and now returns to the House for final approval.

Under House Bill 243, sponsored by Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, any distributor of pornographic material that didn’t display a label warning that porn can be harmful to minors could have legal action brought against them by the Utah Attorney General or any member of the public.

Failing to label porn would subject violators to “a civil penalty of up to $2,500 for each violation,” according to the text of the bill. A portion of the penalty would go toward a Crime Victim Reparations Fund.

The bill follows a 2016 resolution passed by the State Legislature and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert that declared pornography a “public health hazard leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.”

“I think the Legislature has been pretty clear: we believe pornography is harmful for children,” Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, the bill’s Senate sponsor and the sponsor of the 2016 resolution declaring pornography a public health hazard, said Friday. “I don’t know why anyone would object to warning people before they see obscene material.”

H.B. 243 originally would have required the warning label to list the harms that “exposing minors to pornography is known to the state of Utah to cause,” including “harmful and addictive sexual behavior, low self-esteem, and the improper objectification of and sexual violence towards others.”

The language of the warning label was changed Feb. 25 to state that “Exposing minors to obscene material may damage or negatively impact minors,” according to the bill.

During the bill’s second Senate reading on Thursday, Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, asked whether non-pornographic material deemed obscene, such as “graphically violent” content, would be subject to legal action.

Weiler said he “can’t guarantee” that violent material would never be found to be obscene.

“But I can tell you that the main thrust of this bill … (is) going after the sexualized material as opposed to the violent material,” he added.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, questioned whether labeling pornography “may be an attraction” for youth.

“You may have some unintended consequences of kids looking for pornography … and then they find the warning,” said Hillyard. “That’s really the invitation to find the material.”

“If they can’t find it without the label, they’re not doing it right,” Weiler responded. “And I’m (being) a little bit tongue in cheek, but unfortunately it is so easy to find pornography right now that I’m not concerned that adding a warning label is going to make it even easier. Because I’m not sure it could be any easier than it is right now.”

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who voted against the bill, said Thursday that it would “create a lot of problems” by opening the door to lawsuits claiming material is obscene or pornographic.

“I think that, although this is a good bill and I want to protect the children in our schools and in our communities and in our houses and in our homes, I don’t think there’s enough capabilities of us to enforce this law, and I don’t think there’s enough ability of us to prevent complaints from coming in that aren’t justified,” said Riebe.

Weiler amended the bill on Friday to exempt “a person portrayed in obscene or pornographic material that is created, duplicated, or distributed without the person’s knowledge or consent” from being fined, as well as “a person who is coerced or blackmailed into distributing obscene or pornographic material.”

The Senate voted 20-6 in favor of H.B. 243. It now returns to the House where the amended version will be considered.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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