Since judges had already tossed similar laws in Nebraska and Louisiana, members of American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana must have felt pretty good about their chances of getting this state's ban on sex-offender access to Facebook and other social media thrown out. But federal Judge Tanya Walton Pratt didn't follow the pattern. In an 18-page order issued Friday, she said the state has a strong interest in protecting children and that the rest of the Internet remains open to those who must register as sex offenders.
“The Court concedes that social networking is a prominent feature of modern-day society,” she wrote. “However, communication does not begin with a Facebook wall post and end with a 140-character Tweet.” That may understate the important role the social media have to play in our lives, but not by much. And it's certainly closer to the truth than the ACLU's contention that social media today is “virtually indispensable.”
Sexual predators, alas, find social networking highly convenient, if not indispensable. “Social networking, chat rooms, and instant messaging programs have effectively created a 'virtual playground' for sexual predators to lurk,” Pratt wrote in the ruling, citing a 2006 report by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that found that one in seven youths had received online sexual solicitations and one in three had been exposed to unwanted sexual material online.
But is it right to bar potential criminals from using the sites, people who have committed similar crimes but have already served the proscribed punishment for them? That has not been the way we've done it in this country for any other type of crime. You serve the sentence, you get another chance.
Courts have been allowing restrictions to be placed on the lives of sex offenders who have already done their time – rules on where they can live or work, for example, and the requirement that they register as offenders. But the ability to communicate freely by means ordinarily available is a fundamental First Amendment right, so tougher questions must be asked.
One reason our law was spared and Nebraska's and Louisiana's doomed is that ours was written to be narrow and specific, and those in the other two states were so broad that they really could have barred the “ordinary activities” important to daily life.
Of such differences are Supreme Court decisions made. It's hard to say how the court might rule, but it's sure to examine the statutes closely. Laws that affect only one group instead of everybody are viewed with skepticism, and they should be.