Elizabeth Smart fights to remove her name from anti-porn bill

The 2002 kidnapping victim has nothing to do with a bill that would require a filter on every internet-connected device that could be lifted for a $20 fee.
 / Updated  / Source: Associated Press
Image: Elizabeth Smart
Elizabeth Smart during the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association press tour.Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A proposal targeting online pornography and human trafficking billed as the Elizabeth Smart Law has grabbed headlines around the country for its unusual approach: require a filter on every internet-connected device, which can be lifted with a $20 fee.

But Smart, who was kidnapped from her Utah home as a teenager in 2002, has sent a cease-and-desist letter to demand that her name be removed from it.

And the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an anti-pornography group, demanded last year that the man behind the legislation, Chris Sevier, stop claiming that the center supported his work.

Despite those issue; constitutional concerns raised by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union; and a history of outlandish lawsuits from Sevier, who sued the state of Alabama for refusing to recognize his marriage to his computer as a statement against same-sex marriage, similar bills pushed by Sevier keep popping up in state legislatures. The latest one, named for Elizabeth Smart, is set for a hearing before the Rhode Island Senate on Tuesday.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposes the bill, has tracked around two dozen similar bills in 18 state legislatures this year, none of which have passed.

Image: Mark "Chris" Sevier
Chris Sevier in a 2014 booking photo.Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, via AP

Sevier and those who support the filter idea say it would protect children and others by making pornography and sites that allow human trafficking harder to access.

Sevier said he chose Smart’s name for the bill because she has spoken about the negative effects of pornography, including saying that pornography during her nine-month captivity “made my living hell worse.”

After being told by The Associated Press earlier this month that Smart’s lawyer was sending a cease-and-desist letter, Sevier said the name for the bill was an “offhand name” that had been given to the legislation by lawmakers. The bill is also being promoted as the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Prevention Act.

“Obviously, we’re not trying to hurt Elizabeth Smart, for God’s sake,” Sevier said. “We don’t really care what it’s called. We just want it to pass. And we’re going to see to it that it passes, and the law is on our side.”

On March 16, a federal judge in Utah threw out a lawsuit from Sevier that targeted gay marriage by arguing that he should be able to marry his laptop. Similar lawsuits in Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Kentucky have been dismissed, according to a federal judge.

Sevier was sentenced to probation after being found guilty in 2014 of harassment threats against country singer John Rich.

The bills being introduced around the country differ in some details, but generally include requiring internet service providers, or companies that sell devices that connect to the internet, to install a filter that screens out obscene material or sites that facilitate prostitution. The blocking can be lifted with a $20 payment. Republicans and Democrats have pushed it in different states.

Both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU say the idea is unconstitutional, in part because it would install a censorship filter onto everyone’s computer that would screen out lawful content.

"I am not quite sure whether legislators really fully understand the nanny state this bill would create," said Dave Maass, of the foundation. "Unfortunately, he's exploiting the tragedy of human trafficking for what seems to be a crusade against pornography."

In Rhode Island, Democratic Sen. Frank Ciccone explained his sponsorship of the bill, saying the internet “can be a harmful and dangerous environment for our children.”

"Our kids now have easy access to materials that no child should be viewing, such as pornography and other highly offensive or disturbing material," he said in a news release.

He maintained that his intent was to require that such filters be made available to parents who want them, and called the bill a "work in progress."

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