By Associated Press - Monday, March 26, 2018

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 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 her name be removed from it.

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

Despite those issues, constitutional concerns raised by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, and a history of outlandish lawsuits from Sevier including trying to marry his computer as a statement against same-sex marriage, similar bills pushed by Sevier keep popping up in state legislatures.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposes the idea, has tracked around two dozen similar bills in 18 state legislatures this year, none of which have passed. A bill in Rhode Island is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday .

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

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

After being told by AP earlier this month that Smart’s lawyer was sending a cease-and-desist letter, Sevier said the name “Elizabeth Smart Law” 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.”

A federal judge in Utah on March 16 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. Sevier previously told the AP he didn’t do anything wrong, and that the case came after a variety of lawsuits between the two men.

The bills being introduced around the country differ in some details but generally include requiring internet service providers, or those who 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 EFF and American Civil Liberties Union say it’s well-established that the idea is unconstitutional, including 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 EFF. “Now what I find fascinating is I just don’t understand how (Sevier) is pulling this off, like how he’s convincing so many people to introduce this bill.”

Maass said he wonders whether the bill is a publicity stunt rather than a real attempt to pass legislation.

“Unfortunately he’s exploiting the tragedy of human trafficking for what seems to be a crusade against pornography,” Maass said.

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.”

Ciccone did not return requests for comment about how he learned about the bill, but a Rhode Island Senate spokesman, Greg Pare, called it “a national bill” that he said was modeled after one in New Jersey. Similar legislation introduced in New Jersey has not been voted on.

Pare cited the website that Sevier is behind, which says at the top that the act is “referred to as the Elizabeth Smart Law.” A spokesman for Smart said she has nothing to do with it.

“Elizabeth is not connected with this organization,” spokesman Chris Thomas told The Associated Press. “There was absolutely no authorization to use her name.”

She had a lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter this month that tells the group to stop using her name “in any way,” Thomas said.

Sevier told the AP that he met with Smart’s father, Ed, in Utah and “he knows about it.”

Elizabeth Smart’s spokesman said that Ed Smart had met in the past with a group of people pushing the idea, but that it was Ed Smart who suggested that his daughter send the letter.

Asked if he would take her name off the site, Sevier wouldn’t say.

“It’s not that we will take it down or won’t take it down,” he said. “It’s irrelevant.”

As of Monday, Smart’s name was still at the top of the website.

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