By Jason Koebler
New Jersey has become the latest state to try to regulate how (and if) sex offenders can use social media, an increasingly tricky problem facing legislators around the country. But privacy experts say the laws are problematic, and probably unconstitutional.
The proposed bill would require all sex offenders in New Jersey to disclose the fact on all of their social media accounts.
A similar measure was introduced, but not passed, last year. The measure has been pre-filed for the 2014 legislative session. Donna Simon, an assemblywoman who sponsored the bill, said anyone caught violating the law, if passed, could face a $10,000 fine and 18 months in prison.
“Sex offenders are very sneaky and despicable,” she said. “What they will do is they will have a myriad of screen names and other identities to use for communicating to children.”
- Underage children are not suppose to be on Facebook based on their terms of service. Why don't you teach kids in school, or better yet, the parents be parents and teach their own children about the sharing of personal information online or talking to people they do not know? A major study was done years ago that shows most children are approached by their peers about sex, not a stranger, although that does happen.
Of course, stopping even a small number of sexual assaults is a laudable goal, but in many cases, laws that limit social media access are quickly struck down in court, making the whole exercise nothing more than a waste of time and money. A year ago, a federal appeals judge ruled that an Indiana law that banned sex offenders from using instant messaging, social networking sites, and chat programs was unconstitutional. In that decision, a federal judge wrote that the law “targets substantially more activity than the evil it seeks to redress.”
Nathan Wessler, an attorney with the ACLU, says that New Jersey’s proposed law is a similar overreach. The law would require sex offenders to disclose all of their online accounts to law enforcement, including E-mail addresses, screen names, social media accounts, message board handles, and more. Similar provisions in laws passed in Indiana, Nebraska, Georgia, Utah, California, and Louisiana have been struck down. A law banning sex offenders from social media was struck down in North Carolina last year, but a New Jersey ban on social media for sex offenders that are out on parole was upheld.
“The reporting requirement is particularly problematic, because you have a right to engage in anonymous debate online,” Wessler said. “You have the right to ask about embarrassing medical matters online to write on the Facebook page of the Mayo Clinic or post on message boards. The government is requiring people to turn over these anonymous identities so they can watch what they’re doing online even when it’s protected anonymous political speech.”
Wessler says that besides being unconstitutional, the requirement is “onerous and impractical,” because it requires disclosure of things such as randomly-generated email addresses from Craiglist and disclosure of accounts that may have long-since been forgotten about.
The New Jersey law is modeled on a law passed in 2012 in Louisiana and goes a step further, too. It “requires person who are required to register as a sex offender to provide notification of that fact on social networking sites” and also has to include “notice of the crime for which he was convicted, the jurisdiction of conviction, a description of his physical characteristics, and his residential address.” The offender must also link to their sex offender profile on a social networking site.
That’s a lot of information, and a lot of it is impossible, logistically, to follow through with, Wessler says.
“It is literally impossible to include all that information in 140 characters, so anyone on the registry who wanted to use Twitter would be automatically violating the law,” he said, forcing people to “choose between complying with this restriction or giving up the ability to engage in conversation in what has become the new town square.”
Some social media networks, such as Facebook and Match.com, already ask that sex offenders not register for their sites in their terms of service.
All of this may sound overly sympathetic towards sex offenders, but laws that do mainly superficial things such as trying to ban sex offenders from social media run the risk of diverting attention from other prevention efforts. The stereotypical image of a creepy old man preying on unknowing children is a popular—and certainly scary—one, but in reality, few sex offenders use social media to perpetrate their crimes.
“Numbers suggest that Internet-initiated sex crimes account for a salient but small proportion of all statutory rape offenses and a relatively low number of sexual offenses committed against minors overall,” according to a 2008 study published in American Psychologist (PDF).
More than 90 percent of sex offenders personally know their child victims, and in over 50 percent of cases, the perpetrator is a family member—far from a creepy stranger they met online.
“These laws end up being counterproductive,” Wessler said. “They’re not tailored at all to addressing the harm the state should be concerned about. Anytime a legislature relies on inaccurate stereotypes of the problem, they’re diverting attention away from ways to address the real problem. It can create a false sense of security and divert law enforcement resources.”
And, if the goal is to rehabilitate sex offenders who have served their time in jail, requiring them to abstain from social media can seriously hinder that. Because sex offenders often have a difficult time finding jobs, many are self-employed and start their own businesses. If they want to start a social media page for their business, they’d be required to comply with the law.
“A lot of times, they’ll try to make their own goods and sell them online or start a business that you can’t successfully do without marketing online,” Wessler said. “Complying with this is probably going to completely destroy their ability to promote that business online.”