By CHARLES WILSON
INDIANAPOLIS - An Indiana law that bans registered sex offenders from using Facebook and other social networking sites that can be accessed by children is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The 7th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Chicago overturned a federal judge's decision upholding the law, saying the state was justified in trying to protect children but that the "blanket ban" went too far by restricting free speech.
The 2008 law "broadly prohibits substantial protected speech rather than specifically targeting the evil of improper communications to minors," the judges wrote.
"The goal of deterrence does not license the state to restrict far more speech than necessary to target the prospective harm," they said in a 20-page decision (PDF).
The judges noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has also 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 in 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." She noted that everything else on the Internet remained open to those who have been convicted of sex offenses.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the 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.
The ACLU applauded the decision.
"Indiana already has a law on the books that prohibits inappropriate sexual contacts with children," including penalties for online activities, ACLU legal director Ken Falk said. "This law sought to criminalize completely innocent conduct that has nothing to do with children."
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said his office would review the ruling before deciding on the next step.
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.