TOPEKA — Legislation billed as a way to block underage Kansans from seeing porn could potentially stop teens from accessing classical works of art, books, LGBTQ material and other online content housed on websites, as well as potentially cost these websites thousands in legal fees, critics warn.

If implemented, the bill would also cost the state around $210,000 in fiscal year 2025 and at least $220,000 in fiscal year 2026 to create new positions to investigate websites, according to fiscal note estimates. 

Though several Democratic lawmakers urged their colleagues in the House to more carefully consider the chilling effects of the bill, a Republican-dominated vote has moved the bill one step closer to passage. 

Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican and carrier of the bill, warned her colleagues of the dangers of porn Monday. 

“Pornography normalizes violence and abuse against women and children,” Humphries said. “It impacts brain development and functioning and is potentially biologically addictive.”

Senate Bill 394 would require age verification for websites that contain 25% or more content that is “harmful to minors,” as defined by state statute. 

Current state statute defines the description, exhibition, presentation, or representation of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse as harmful to minors. Since homosexuality is rolled into the definition of “sexual conduct” under statute, several lawmakers said this wording could lead to a ban on LGBTQ online materials for those under 18. 

The bill contains a caution that the work must be deemed to contain “prurient interest in sex to minors,” and that a reasonable person would find the material lacking in serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors. But bill critics warned of the dangers of leaving this standard up to subjective interpretation. 

Rep. Rui Xu, a Westwood Democrat, pressed Humphries on the bill’s full implications for LGBTQ content. Xu gave the example of a blog listing the most gay-friendly cities. A website dedicated to providing seminal books such as the “The Catcher in the Rye,” or even the Bible could also be subject to restrictions. An art blog depicting the statue of David could also be subjected to scrutiny.

“With all these bills, think about the unintended consequences or intended consequences, I don’t know,” Xu said. “The definitions are much broader than we actually think.”

Under the bill, the attorney general would be responsible for investigating public reports of noncompliance with the law. The attorney general would be allowed to seek civil penalties against websites ranging from $500 to $10,000 for each underage visit. The parent or guardian of a minor who gained access to age-restricted websites would be allowed to file a lawsuit and seek damages of $50,000 or more.

Wichita Democrat Rep. John Carmichael, one of several other lawmakers to point out the bill’s shortcomings, said parents already had many ways to stop their children from watching porn.

“We in America cherish our First Amendment rights,” Carmichael said. “I’m sure all of us know people who have given their lives in defense of that First Amendment. And the fact that some people find some material harmful to minors that other people find to be a part of a good education should not mean that we erase materials that some parents may disagree with from the internet, or for that matter school curriculum.”

Others pointed to potential problems with the age verification system itself, since it would give third-party verification systems access to documents such as drivers’ licenses or passports. 

“Minors should not have access to porn and that is harmful to them. We can all agree to that,” said Rep. Dan Osman, an Overland Park Democrat. “…When we talk about what’s actually occurring with this bill, you’re going to put in your license or your passport into a third-party system, probably located outside of the United States, and you don’t know what’s going to happen with that information.

“These companies are outside the United States. They’re not within the jurisdiction of the state of Kansas and if you as an individual are harmed by this, if you have your identity stolen because of this … you’re never getting restitution on that issue.” 

The bill already passed the Senate. Final House action on the bill is expected to occur in the next few days, after which the legislation will be sent to the governor’s desk.

Civil assets

 

House lawmakers also advanced a bill to change the state’s long-standing civil asset forfeiture practice, one widely characterized as in dire need of reform. 

Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement agencies to seize cash and property they suspect was used in a crime. In Kansas, where police can take property they believe to be connected to crime before the property owner is charged or convicted, close to $25.3 million in cash and property has been seized by Kansas law enforcement agencies over the past three and a half years.

Senate Bill 458 would remove the crime of drug possession from the list of offenses subject to forfeiture, shorten the window of time for property to be returned to the owner, require a judge to approve a probable cause affidavit before a forfeiture case could proceed, and allow defendants who recovered more than half of their property to recoup attorney fees and litigation costs.

Final House action on the bill is expected to occur in the next few days. The bill will then go to the governor. 

Cellphones

 

House lawmakers also advanced a traffic bill that would ban minors under 18 from using a cellphone while driving, and ban all Kansas drivers from using cellphones in school zones when reduced speed warnings are in effect, or while driving in construction zones. The bill gained initial approval on the House floor, with final action on the bill expected tomorrow.  Law enforcement would be authorized to issue warnings until July 1, 2025, and issue $60 fines after that date. 

Exceptions are allowed for law enforcement or emergency personnel while on the job, a motorist stopped in a safe spot as well as a person using a hands-free device or a device permanently affixed to the vehicle. Motorists who used a cellphone to report illegal activity, prevent imminent injury to a person or damage to property, make a call for emergency medical assistance or relay information to a transit dispatcher would also be exempt. 

Another provision requires drivers approaching a stopped vehicle using caution signals or other hazard warnings to change lanes if possible and to proceed with caution. Violations would carry a $75 fine.