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Guv vetoes video-game bill

He believes measure has First Amendment issues

Published: Thursday, March 26 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Agreeing with freedom-of-speech proponents and video gamers, including one group formed by artists, moviemakers and writers, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. vetoed a video-game truth-in-advertising bill Wednesday.

He also vetoed a more obscure bill (HB156) that could cause sewage and water problems on poorly subdivided agricultural lands.

But the HB353 veto clearly puts Huntsman in the sights of some conservative Utah Republicans, who were already upset with him over his support of the Common Ground Initiative, several bills that were supported by gay-rights groups and quickly killed in the 2009 Legislature.

"We believe there are commerce-clause and First-Amendment issues" with HB353, said Lisa Roskelley, Huntsman's spokeswoman. "It is a laudable goal to protect children from inappropriate materials, but the governor is concerned that this bill doesn't do that."

Those claims were denied by House GOP leaders and Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, the bill's sponsor, who said they were surprised and displeased with the governor's veto — the first this year among 450 bills passed by the 2009 Legislature.

Huntsman's veto of HB353, his "green agenda" and his support of the Common Ground Initiative "certainly give the impression that he is out of touch with mainstream Utah," said Morley, a noted House conservative. "He's a moderate, not a conservative. And his recent actions don't seem to square with the majority in the Legislature, either."

Morley said he found out that his bill would be vetoed through a voice message from a Huntsman aide left Wednesday afternoon. "It's too bad I couldn't talk to him. His reasons" for the veto in a veto letter "are not correct," Morley said.

House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said HB353 was a "good" bill aimed at keeping video games with violence and nudity away from children.

Huntsman may not be through with his vetoes. He has until April 1 to sign, veto or allow bills to become law without his signature.

While displeased with the veto, Garn said: "I don't see a veto override session called for either of these bills. I think the sponsors should retool them and present them next session."

House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said he questions whether either bill "had the emotion" that might bring House members to call themselves into an override session. Still, he said he would poll all members to see if there was the two-thirds support needed for an override. The bill passed in the House 63-3 and in the Senate 25-4. It would take 50 House votes and 20 Senate votes to override Huntsman's veto.

Jon Dean, executive producer of EA Salt Lake, a local maker of video games, told the Deseret News that Huntsman's veto "is a win for Utah families and particularly gamers."

Dean said if the bill became law, there would be no incentive for retailers to keep the current, voluntary game-rating system. "It would eliminate protections in place to keep kids from getting their hands on inappropriate material."

Morley said that he had the support of the Utah Retailers Association and other groups interested in keeping violent video games out of the reach of under-age children. He said he was surprised by some of the reaction to HB353 after it passed, adding that he talked to some of the video gamers who were sending him e-mails and, once he had explained, they didn't oppose the bill.

HB353 didn't ban the sale of M-rated videos to minors, and didn't deal with the video industries' own, purely voluntary, video-rating system, Morley said.

Rather, noted Morley, the measure said that if a video seller advertised that it did not sell M-rated games to teenagers or younger children, and then did indeed sell those games to underage customers, then the seller's liability could be increased if an angry parent or some other adult chose to sue. There were no criminal penalties in the bill, "and no video-game stores would be raided," Morley said.

On Wednesday, a group of writers, educators, movie-makers, actors and others, called the National Coalition Against Censorship, asked Huntsman to veto the bill and urged their membership to contact his office. The group's board includes well-known writer Judy Blum, and the association is made up of the Actor's Equity, the Newspaper Guild, an association of college professors, the Directors Guild of America, librarians, and others.

The coalition's executive director, Joan Bertin, said in a news release: "In our view, the bill takes a voluntary effort by manufacturers to provide consumers with information and turns it into a mechanism to deprive minors of their First Amendment rights."

She pointed out that the targeted materials can legally be sold to minors.

Clark, Garn and Morley said there are no freedom-of-speech issues with the bill.

Garn said HB353 "was a fine example of a bill that sends a message to the sellers of these games of violence and nudity — don't sell to minors, especially if you've advertised that you wouldn't."

Said Clark: "There is a big difference between freedom of speech and just telling the truth. This asks retailers to tell the truth — if you say you're not selling these games to minors, don't."

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com

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