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Fake complaint calls show Utah's bathroom bill wasn't well thought out, auditor says

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Utah has a new law which restricts which bathrooms or changing rooms transgender people may use. The state set up a tip line for people to report violations of that law, and the system has been flooded with thousands of fake complaints from those who oppose the legislation. The state auditor is on the receiving end of those complaints, and he says this response shows the bill was not well-thought out. Martha Harris with member station KUER reports.

MARTHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Utah's Republican state auditor, John Dougall, says he didn't set out to become a bathroom monitor. But that's the role the state legislature gave him.

JOHN DOUGALL: This is an astronomical number of complaints.

HARRIS: The new law required his office to set up an online system where people could report possible violations. Dougall says he's received about 10,000 complaints, and they're all bogus.

DOUGALL: We haven't come across a legitimate one yet. Some seem to be, like, gibberish and, you know, vulgarities and so forth. Others appear just to be protest statements, people that are upset about the law taking it out on my team.

HARRIS: Dougall says there seems to be some confusion about his office's role. The auditor mainly does financial oversight, but now he's required to investigate if government buildings are in compliance with the new trans bathroom law. Even if his office did get a legitimate complaint, he says, it might not be equipped to handle it.

DOUGALL: We'd probably have to hire out to somebody who's got the skill set to go look at construction plans and review those.

HARRIS: The new law restricts which bathrooms transgender kids can use in public schools, and it bars transgender people from using changing rooms that match their gender in government-owned buildings like recreation centers. Dougall says lawmakers didn't consult him about the bill.

DOUGALL: If this portion of the bill were really about protecting individuals or protecting girls, I would say there are much - several more effective ways to go about ensuring governmental entities are really providing the required privacy for individuals rather than this approach.

HARRIS: Republican state representative Kera Birkland sponsored the law. She declined an interview but stood by her bill in a statement, arguing this role does fall under the state auditor's responsibility. She said, quote, "we do what is best for Utah despite outcries from a loud and vocal minority." Nick Arteaga is a transgender rights strategist with the ACLU of Utah. They say the fake complaints are a legitimate form of protest.

NICK ARTEAGA: I think this is just proof of how ridiculous this is and how unnecessary the bill was. And now all the harm that it's causing, all of the wasted tax dollars, the time and energy, you know, that is being put into it - that is clearly not working.

HARRIS: Arteaga says the auditor's role isn't the only troublesome part of the bill. It's the whole thing.

ARTEAGA: And I think for a lot of folks, they're just maybe avoiding these spaces altogether because it is really confusing.

HARRIS: Utah's isn't the first state-run complaint portal that's been spammed by LGBTQ rights advocates. Last year Missouri's website to report concerns about gender-affirming care was shut down after it was flooded with memes and fake complaints, including the entire "Bee Movie" script.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Harris in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF J. COLE SONG, "FORBIDDEN FRUIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Martha Harris
[Copyright 2024 KUER 90.1]