Court blocks law imposing restrictions on adult websites to protect minors from sexual content
(The Center Square) – A federal judge blocked a new law from going into effect this month that imposes restrictions and civil penalties related to online publication or distribution of sexual material harmful to minors.
HB 1181, filed by state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, which had multiple cosponsors and bipartisan support, was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott and was set to go into effect Sept. 1.
It requires commercial entities that knowingly and intentionally publish or distribute material on websites or social media platforms with one-third of its content being sexual material harmful to minors to use reasonable age verification methods to verify that those attempting to access the material are at least 18 years old. The law also makes liable entities that knowingly and intentionally publish or distribute sexual material online in violation of the law and imposes a range of fines.
Shaheen filed the bill, according to the bill analysis, because “Sexual material on websites has become increasingly accessible to a young demographic of users. Exposure to this material can be associated with many negative emotional, psychological, and physical health outcomes for preadolescent users.”
The analysis also points to a Journal of Adolescent Health report that found approximately one in five youth experience unwanted online exposure to sexually explicit material and to other studies that identified “several potential negative impacts stemming from certain adolescents' use of sexually explicit material.” The bill, Shaheen said, “seeks to hold individuals and entities who publish sexual material harmful to minors on a website accountable by setting out age verification requirements and creating liability for those who violate certain requirements.”
On Aug. 4, a coalition of free speech groups sued, arguing HB 1181 violates the First Amendment. Plaintiffs include the Free Speech Coalition, PornHub's parent company Aylo, an anonymous porn actress, and operators of adult sites based in the Czech Republic and Florida.
On Aug. 31, U.S. District Judge David A. Ezra of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas issued his ruling siding with the plaintiffs. He also prohibited the Office of the Attorney General from “enforcing any provision” of the bill.
“The Court finds that H.B. 1181 is unconstitutional on its face,” Ezra wrote. “The statute is not narrowly tailored and chills the speech of Plaintiffs and adults who wish to access sexual materials … And the law is not narrowly tailored because it substantially regulates protected speech, is severely underinclusive, and uses overly restrictive enforcement methods.”
The judge pointed out that Texas has a “legitimate” goal to protect children from explicit sexual content online, but the approach the state took was unconstitutional. “There are viable and constitutional means to achieve Texas’s goal, and nothing in this order prevents the state from pursuing those means,” he said.
Ezra also raised privacy concerns about the bill’s age verification requirement process including requiring users to submit a government ID to verify their age.
Using a government ID to verify one’s age would allow the government to gain access to “the most intimate and personal aspects” of the lives of people who go on adult sites, he argued. “In effect, the law risks forcing individuals to divulge specific details of their sexuality to the state government to gain access to certain speech. Such restrictions have a substantial chilling effect.”
The bill also required commercial entities to display health warnings on their website landing pages and attribute the warning to the Texas Health and Human Services. The warning would state that pornography is “proven to harm human brain development; … is associated with low self-esteem and body image, eating disorders, impaired brain development, and other emotional and mental illnesses;” and may increase the “demand for prostitution, child exploitation, and child pornography.”
Violations would result in a daily $10,000 fine and failure to implement the age verification requirement process could also result in an additional $250,000 fine, according to the bill language.
In response to the lawsuit, Shaheen posted on X, “I passed #HB1181 to protect children from being sexualized. Predatory extremists want to steal the innocence of our children & we won’t tolerate it. I will fight these groomers who want to harm our children.”
FSC executive director Alison Boden praised the ruling in a statement, saying, “This is a huge and important victory against the rising tide of censorship online. From the beginning, we have argued that the Texas law, and those like it, are both dangerous and unconstitutional.”
The Office of the Texas Attorney General has already filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.