INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana lawmakers rushed Tuesday to restore a key part of a court-overturned ban on social networking for ex-cons by advancing a measure to restrict sex offenders from using Facebook and similar sites to contact children, a narrow step that supporters argued would be far less vulnerable to legal challenges.
The bill the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law unanimously sent to the Senate floor rewrites a complete ban dating from 2008 that was overturned by a federal court on Jan. 23. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said the old law was too broad and violated freedom of speech.
Two Republican senators rewrote the ban and introduced it earlier in the legislative session, but critics said it still was too broad because it would virtually ban offenders from using social media, even if they don’t try to directly contact children and their past crimes had nothing to do with the Internet.
The amended version applies only to offenders convicted of child-related sex crimes who knowingly use social networks, instant messaging or chat rooms to communicate with children below age 16.
“It’s much narrower now than it was,” said Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, the bill’s sponsor.
The 7th Circuit judges noted in their decision last month that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws that restricted the constitutional right to freedom of expression, such as one that sought to ban leafleting on the premise that it would prevent the dropping of litter.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled last June that the state has a strong interest in protecting children and found that social networking had created a “virtual playground for sexual predators to lurk.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana had filed a class-action suit on behalf of a man who served three years for child exploitation and other sex offenders who are restricted by the ban even though they are no longer on probation.
Courts have long allowed states to place restrictions on convicted sex offenders who have completed their sentences, controlling where many live and work and requiring them to register with police. But the ACLU contended that even though the Indiana law is only intended to protect children from online sexual predators, social media websites are virtually indispensable. The group said the ban prevents sex offenders from using the websites for legitimate political, business and religious purposes.
Federal judges have barred similar laws in Nebraska and Louisiana. Louisiana legislators passed a new, narrower law last year that requires sex offenders to identify themselves on Facebook and similar sites. A federal judge struck down part of Nebraska’s law last October.