Should Sex Offenders Be Allowed to Use Facebook? Supreme Court Will Decide

WASHINGTON — Like tens of thousands of other Texans on the sex offender registry, Andrew, who lives in Dallas, is legally barred from using the vast majority of social media websites, including Facebook and Snapchat. Every state places different restrictions on the rights of convicted sex offenders, limiting where they’re allowed to live, travel and work. And several, including Texas, also severely limit the websites that sex offenders are allowed to visit.But on Monday, lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that such blanket bans may be a violation of their right to free speech.Andrew, who was arrested for possession of child pornography in 2004, spent 10 years in federal prison. He’s still on parole today, his keystrokes and clicks are constantly monitored, and he isn’t allowed to own a smartphone. He knows his story isn’t a particularly sympathetic one.“My choice cost me everything," said Andrew, who agreed to discuss his case if he was referred to by his middle name only. "But it isn’t a sob story, it’s just a fact. I know I did this to myself.”Since his arrest, Andrew’s wife left him. Of his three children, only one will speak to him. He had to seek special permission from the court to activate a LinkedIn profile, so that he could find another job, and he describes his boss as “probably my only friend.”So he wishes he could rejoin Facebook, if only to temper his isolation. Unlike sex offenders, perpetrators of violence, kidnapping, and even murder are still allowed on social media, he noted.“I’ve been through treatment, I’ve paid my dues,” Andrew added. “I’m no danger to anyone.”Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who co-signed a brief to support the North Carolina law being challenged at the high court, disagrees. In the brief, Paxton and twelve other attorneys general argued that laws restricting social media usage of sex offenders is a “practical solution to a practical problem.”“The problem is that social media is a dangerous place for children and that registered sex offenders disproportionately commit additional sex crimes online,” the brief read.In the same way that convicted sex offenders aren’t allowed to visit schools and playgrounds, they also shouldn’t be allowed to visit social media websites, where they might interact with minors, the lawyers argued.“Social networking websites allow people to establish relationships that were previously unlikely,” the brief read. “The pool of potential victims also grows as the offender is no longer restricted by physical barriers, such as geographical locations.”The attorneys general also noted that social media bans don’t fully restrict sex offenders from all communication. But at court, the justices struggled to determine whether there are any true alternative avenues by which sex offenders could get the vast majority of information that social media websites often provide.“This is the way people structure their civic community life,” noted Justice Elena Kagan.Kagan pointed out that the recent election of President Donald Trump highlights the unique role Twitter plays in modern communication.“Everybody uses Twitter — all 50 governors, all 100 senators, every member of the House has a Twitter account,” Kagan said. “So this has become a crucially important channel of political communication.”Justice Samuel Alito seemed skeptical of that argument.“I know there are people who think that life is not possible without Twitter and Facebook and these things and that 2003 was the dark ages,” he said.Although Texas' restrictions on sex offenders' social media use are not being directly challenged in court, those restrictions might still be nullified, depending on what the justices decide. The actual ban being challenged is in effect in North Carolina.Lester Packingham, a 29-year-old sex offender from Durham who brought the case to the Supreme Court, tangled with the law after police officers found him on Facebook. Packingham had posted a Facebook status praising Jesus and celebrating a dismissed parking ticket, which is how police officers realized he was using the service.When sex offenders who are no longer serving time want to share statuses like that, they should be able to do so, argued Mary Sue Molnar, executive director of the group Texas Voices for Reason and Justice. The effects of a ban on speech are significant, she added.“In this day and time, you’re pretty much isolated,” Molnar, whose son is on the sex offenders registry, said. “These rules can serve to isolate people from good, solid social standing — from connecting with family, from reintegrating into society.“That’s what we want,” Molnar said.The justices are expected to issue a ruling before their term ends in June.  Continue reading...

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