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Kentuckians could soon need to prove their age to watch porn online

Sen. Gex Williams, a Republican from Verona, confers with GOP Sen. Whitney Westerfield from Fruit Hill. The two were on opposite sides of a debate around a bill requiring age verification for pornographic websites.
Bud Kraft
/
Legislative Research Commission
Sen. Gex Williams, a Republican from Verona, confers with GOP Sen. Whitney Westerfield from Fruit Hill. The two were on opposite sides of a debate around a bill requiring age verification for pornographic websites.

Websites that regularly publish or distribute content dubbed “harmful to minors” would be required to verify the ages of their users.

A bill headed to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear requires pornography websites to verify their Kentucky users are more than 18 years old.

With the 2024 legislative session winding down, Kentucky lawmakers added the requirement into a bill that originally increased penalties for childhood sexual abuse and assault.

Similar legislation has passed in a dozen other states since 2022, including Indiana, Florida and Idaho just this year, according to the The Free Speech Coalition, the trade association for the adult industry.

Sen. Gex Williams, a Republican from Verona, said that in many of those states, the “most egregious sites,” containing matter that the amendment defines as “harmful to children” left the state rather than comply with the new rules.

“That's what we can expect to find happening here,” Williams said. “They will pull out of Kentucky. And in the time [before] there's another ruling, we will have our children somewhat more protected. We hope for this.”

The bill declares that porn is creating a “public health crisis” and has a “corroding influence” on kids. The amended legislation would require that porn websites verify a user is 18 or older using a state or federally-issued ID or methods that rely on “public or private transactional data” to verify age.

Websites that distribute material that is more than one-third “harmful to minors” under the bill and doesn’t perform age verification could be held liable. A child or their parents could sue for $10,000 per incident. The bill also requires that the sites not hold onto personal identifying data, allowing people to sue for $1,000 for every day their data is stored by the website.

The amendments were added late Wednesday night and passed the House on Thursday night, just hours before a midnight deadline.

It includes a definition of matter that is harmful to minors, anything that appeals to a “prurient interest,” lacks serious value for kids and mainly consists of “actual, similar or animated displays” of genitalia, touching of genitals or any sexual act.

Before the amendments, the bill was fairly uncontroversial. It makes distributing sexual performance including children a sex crime, and makes viewing or possessing such performances a violent crime. It also enhances a number of penalties around child sexual abuse and human trafficking.

The age verification component was resurrected from bills that never even got a hearing this session — House Bill 241 and Senate Bill 276. Despite lawmaker concerns over the amendments, the bill passed unanimously in both chambers.

Beshear can either veto it, sign it or allow the bill to become law without his signature. If he did choose to veto, lawmakers would have the chance to override.

Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield from Fruit Hill said he fully supported the original bill but had constitutional privacy concerns with the amendment.

“I don't think everybody on this floor understands what this bill is requiring of the companies to do, or how users are supposed to comply with it and do so within the confines of the First Amendment. And I don't think that's possible yet, which is regrettable,” Westerfield said. “I wish it [were] possible.”

Westerfield voted in favor of the bill despite his overarching concerns.

A legal battle is still brewing around age-verification laws, as an appeals court in Texas last month decided to overturn a lower court's decision, upholding the age verification law. Pornhub suspended its site in Texas in response. The Free Speech Coalition, which brought the lawsuit, is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

The bill would have also originally removed the statute of limitations for lawsuits alleging childhood sexual assault or abuse. GOP Sen. Johnnie Turner from Harlan filed an amendment to remove that element of the bill, which ended up being adopted in both the House and Senate.

Democrats and Republicans alike expressed their disappointment that Kentucky’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse would remain at 10 years.

The original bill sponsor, Nicholasville Republican Rep. Matt Lockett, said he did not support the removal per se, but felt he had no choice if he wanted to keep the bill’s other provisions alive.

“It's not really one that I wanted,” Lockett said. “However, we've all kind of understood that in order to get a bigger picture, sometimes we have to compromise with our pals on the other end of the hall.”

Democratic Rep. Lisa Willner from Louisville said she was disappointed that the Senate would remove what she believed to be an important element of the legislation.

“We know that most people who are sexually abused as children never disclose. For those who do, their average age is actually age 52,” Willner said. “To limit this to 10 years past the age of majority is really a shame. I wish that we could have held fast and kept the bill the House version of it.”

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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