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Convicted sex offenders are often prohibited from using Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media networks as part of their sentence.  Indiana is poised to join several states that have considered the constitutionality of such a social media ban.  This contentious lawsuit pits the public’s disgust with sex crimes against our most treasured guarantees of free speech and individual freedom.

Courts have long upheld laws that place restrictions on convicted sex offenders who have completed their sentences—restricting where they live and work, and requiring them to register with the police.  The prevalent use of social media for everyday communication raises untested legal questions about the effect of a social media ban on a convicted sex offender’s right to free speech.  Indiana’s ban applies to most social media sites that require a password and allow children under age 18 to sign on.

The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) of Indiana is heading a class-action suit on behalf of a man who served three years for child exploitation, along with other sex offenders who are restricted by the ban even though they are no longer on probation.  “To broadly prohibit such a large group of persons from ever using these modern forms of communication is just something the First Amendment cannot tolerate,” said Ken Falk, legal director of Indiana’s ACLU chapter. Falk argues that, even though Indiana’s 2008 law is only intended to protect children from online sexual predators, it also prevents sex offenders from using social media for political, business, and religious activity, such as using Facebook to follow the pope, commenting on newspaper websites, posting a profile on LinkedIn, or following presidential candidates on Twitter.  Finally, Falk argues that Indiana’s ban is unnecessary because Indiana already has a law that makes it a crime to use the Internet to contact a child for the purposes of sexual gratification.

Indiana Deputy Attorney General David Arthur justifies Indiana’s ban by arguing that it is limited only to social networking sites that allow access by children and does not apply to email or Internet message boards.  Arthur also notes that access to Facebook, Twitter, and similar social networking sites is not required to participate in the public conversation.  “We still have television.  We still have radios.  And believe it or not, people still talk face-to-face,” he said.  Arthur compares the social networking ban to laws barring sex offenders from school property and other places frequented by children.  Only in this case, the place is virtual.

The ACLU’s argument also fails to recognize the fact that Facebook and similar social networking sites have a significant private component in addition to their public features.  Unlike publicly-distributed printed materials, these sites allow and encourage private chatting, private messaging, and private picture sharing.  Authorities insist the ban addresses the need to protect children from pedophiles who prowl the online hangouts visited by children.  “It’s hard to come up with an example of a sexual predator who doesn’t use some form of social media networking anymore,” said Steve DeBrota, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Indianapolis who prosecutes child sex crimes.

The gray area between the ever-present role social networking sites play in our public conversation and the private functions offered by these same sites will likely continue to inspire robust debate, both in and out of the courtroom.  In an attempt to clarify the issue, Ken Falk stated: “Everyone wants to protect children but again, we have to recognize that in crafting solutions to deal with our problems, we have to stay within the constitutional bounds . . . .”  Ruthann Robson, a professor of constitutional law at the City University of New York warns: “If we think that the government can curtail sex offenders’ rights without any connection to actual crime, then it could become a blanket prohibition against anyone who is accused of a crime, no matter what the crime is.”

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, stated in a late-May hearing that she plans to rule within a month on the Constitutionality of Indiana’s ban.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader must consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader’s specific circumstances.

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