Federal Court Overturns Indiana Law Banning Sex Offenders From Social Media

A federal appeals court has overturned an Indiana law that forbid registered sex offenders from accessing social media websites.  The law, designed to prevent sex offenders from having online access to minors, was struck down for being too broad and prohibiting “substantial protected speech.”  The case provides an example to legislators and judges across the country of the importance of balancing socially beneficial legislation with the protections guaranteed by the US Constitution.

Reason Behind the Ruling

Although the law withstood the initial challenge by the ACLU when a 2008 District Court ruling upheld it, the appeals court found reasons to reverse the initial decision.   The framers of the law, and the judge who upheld it initially, favored a more broad approach to the legislation that banned sex offenders from using any social media that is accessed by minors.  This included common social networking sites, instant messaging services, and any other online chat programs that could be accessed by minors.  Punishment for a first offense was a misdemeanor, but sex offenders who repeatedly violated the law by attempting to access social media sites faced felony punishment. 

On appeal, a higher federal court agreed with the ACLU by deciding the law was overly broad, and violated the free speech provisions of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.  By restricting any access to social media sites for all registered sex offenders, Indiana lawmakers over extended their Constitutional authority because there are many activities available on social media that have no contact, or benign contact, with minors.  Following the appeals court decision, Indian lawmakers pledged to get back to the drawing board, and find a law that protects children from sexual predators online without violating the Constitution.  Individuals who were punished under this law must take action to have their sentences reversed.

Walking a Fine Line

Sex offenders typically garner very little sympathy from legislatures, judges, and the general public, which makes laws like the Indiana widespread ban on social media possible.  Denying sex offenders the opportunity to use online forums to communicate and interact with minors is generally recognized as an important step in protecting a vulnerable population.  However, this case serves as a reminder to legislators across the country that laws like this tow a Constitutional line, and attention needs to be paid to the rights owed all US citizens.  While some criminal activity may warrant additional limitations imposed on the rights of sex offenders, denying a particular type of speech regardless of content goes too far.

In an age where social media is widely used, legislators looking to protect minors from known sexual predators need to narrowly and intelligently draft legislation that identifies high risk parties and prevents them from engaging in high risk behavior.  A broad, categorical, ban on online activity is, as we have seen, not going to pass Constitutional mustard.  As Indiana gets back to work on drafting more appropriate legislation, legislators in states considering similar action would do well to learn from this case as they draft new laws.

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