Bill requiring age verification for online porn heading to SC governor’s desk

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Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg (left), talks to Senate staff during session in Columbia, S.C. on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (File/Travis Bell/STATEHOUSE CAROLINA/Special to the SC Daily Gazette)

COLUMBIA — A bill requiring South Carolinians to verify they’re at least 18 to access pornographic websites is heading to the governor’s desk.

The Senate gave final approval Thursday. After some back and forth between the chambers, the version poised to become law is what the House approved 113-1 earlier this year.

Titled the “Child Online Safety Act,” the bill was advocated as necessary to protect children from seeing harmful, graphic images.

If Gov. Henry McMaster signs it, a lawsuit is expected.

Civil liberty advocates spoke against the bill during the committee process, saying it was unconstitutional, and even Senate staff raised concerns. But supporters said the issue is too important to children’s mental health not to try.

South Carolina is not the only state considering this issue.

According to the Free Speech Coalition, which represents the adult entertainment industry, at least 10 states have enacted similar laws this year, including Georgia.

In late April, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block a similar law in Texas while the nation’s high court considered a challenge from the coalition.

That gave legislators hope that South Carolina’s legislation would survive a court challenge. Sen. Sean Bennett, who chaired the subcommittee that approved the bill, said the South Carolina proposal is very similar to the Texas law.

“A lot of our concerns about constitutionality are not necessarily alleviated, but we think we’re in a good spot,” the Summerville Republican told the SC Daily Gazette on Wednesday.

Last-day changes

The exact language of the bill was in doubt until the final hours of the regular legislative session, which ended at 5 p.m. Thursday.

Last week, the Senate amended the bill to attach separate legislation sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto to criminalize “morphed” images, where a real picture of a minor is manipulated to create fake pornography of children being sexually abused.

The proposal was a priority for state Attorney General Alan Wilson and the bipartisan Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children.

However, while Hutto’s proposal passed the Senate unanimously, the House never took it up. So Hutto tacked the language criminalizing artificial child abuse images onto the bill requiring age verification for porn.

When the Senate version arrived in the House on Thursday, though, the House rejected Hutto’s amendment. The Senate agreed to stick with the original bill.

“It’s something the attorney general’s office really wants, but we all have different priorities,” Hutto said after the House turned down his amendment. “We don’t want to lose the underlying bill.”

The age verification bill moved through the House alongside a proposal that would require parental consent for children to create social media accounts. Both bills passed the House back-to-back in January with only one legislator voting against each.

In April, Bennet’s subcommittee paused consideration of the social media bill, saying they needed more time. It never advanced any further.

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