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Friday, June 3, 2016

Should Registered Sex Offenders Have Access to Facebook? A Clash of Rights

     Constitutional law in America could be described as an ongoing struggle between the interests of society and the rights of individuals and groups. In this battle, most citizens, unless their individual rights are threatened, come down in favor of the government. This is particularly true when the individuals complaining about their rights being violated are convicted sex offenders.

     The Indiana legislature, in 2008, passed a bill barring most registered sex offenders in the state from using social networking sites that allow access to youngsters under eighteen. The law, passed without a single opposing vote in the state house and senate, and signed by Governor Mitch Daniels, made it a crime for registered sex offenders to access Facebook and sites like it.

     While the vast majority of Indiana's citizens embraced the new legislation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class-action suit on behalf of the state's registered sex offenders challenging the constitutionality of the law. According to the ACLU, the law violated its clients' First Amendment rights to free speech.

     In June 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt upheld the social networking ban as constitutional on the grounds the state has a strong interest in protecting children from pedophiles. Judge Pratt, in her opinion, described Internet sites like Facebook as "virtual playgrounds for sexual predators."

     The ACLU appealed the U.S. District Court ruling to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. In January 2013, the three-judge panel handed down its decision. The Indiana law denying registered sex offenders the right to avail themselves of Facebook and the other networking sites violated their right to free speech.

     As a result of the federal appeals court decision, registered sex offenders in Indiana who have been found guilty of violating the 2008 law, can petition state courts to have their convictions vacated. If they don't, their convictions will stand.

     It's not surprising that the appeals court decision to strike down this law was extremely unpopular in Indiana. Very few people have sympathy for sex offenders, even after they have "paid for their crimes." That's because most of them re-offend. Once a sex offender, always a sex offender. (This is particularly true of serial rapists and pedophiles.)

     If alcoholics are prohibited from flying airplanes, why should convicted sex offenders be allowed to use Facebook to network with each other and prowl for victims?A lawyer for the ACLU would answer that question this way: citizens don't have a constitutional right to fly a plane. However, because I believe that child safety should trump this constitutional right of sex offenders, I do not agree with the circuit court's decision in this case.    

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