News Column

Proposed Bill to Ban Sex Offenders From Social Media Sites Meets Criticism

Jan 11, 2013

Nico Roesler

A proposed state law that would ban all registered sex offenders from using social media websites such as Facebook is being called unconstitutional by advocates of sex-offender law reforms.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Bernalillo, would restrict registered sex offenders from using any instant messaging or chat room websites that "the sex offender knows allows a person who is under eighteen years of age to access or use."

A first offense, according to the bill, would be a misdemeanor, and any subsequent offenses would be prosecuted as fourth-degree felonies.

Gentry said Thursday that the bill was created in response to what he called a growing number of instances around the country in which minors have been targeted by sex offenders through websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

"There have been many instances throughout the country where convicted sex offenders have lured children into unsafe situations using social media," Gentry said.

The proposed bill has already received criticism from organizations such as Reform Sex Offender Laws of New Mexico. Lloyd Schwartz, the organization's president, said Thursday that the bill is "overly broad" and "doesn't take into account that many of the people on the registry didn't commit a crime against a minor."

"This has been a grandstand issue that's been taken to the courts around the country and dismissed as unconstitutional," Schwartz said.

Nebraska, Louisiana and Indiana have enacted laws similar to Gentry's proposed law -- and in Louisiana and Nebraska, laws banning sex offenders from social media websites have been deemed unconstitutional.

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf in Nebraska said in October 2012 said that legislatures need to "concentrate on demonstrated risk rather than speculating and burdening more speech than is necessary -- use a scalpel rather than a blunderbuss," the judge told the Lincoln Journal Star.

On the other hand, U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of Indiana upheld a similar law in Indiana, ruling that "Social networking, chat rooms, and instant messaging programs have effectively created a 'virtual playground' for sexual predators to lurk," according to The Washington Post.

Gentry said he modeled his bill after the Indiana law that Pratt upheld in June 2012.

"We're trying to protect our kids here," Gentry said.

Santa Fe Police Sgt. Andrea Dobyns, head of the Crimes Against Children Unit, said she thinks the proposed law is a "great idea" and would aid law enforcement in preventing predators from targeting minors.

"I can't tell you how many cases that we've seen with known predators using chat rooms," Dobyns said.

In a study conducted by Harvard University in 2008, minors identified about 48 percent of sexual solicitors as being other adolescents, and only 4 percent to 9 percent being adults older than 21. The study found that 44 percent of Internet-initiated sex crimes were committed by family members, and 56 percent were committed by people known to the victim offline.

"In other words," the study states, "the threat of Internet-initiated sex crimes committed by strangers appears to be extremely exaggerated."

However, according to a national study in 2010, in 82 percent of online sex crimes against minors, the offender used the victim's social networking site to gain information about the victim's likes and dislikes, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Sex offenders on probation or parole in New Mexico are already prohibited from using social media sites through the state Department of Corrections. In most cases, sex offenders are sentenced to five to 20 years of probation and parole after their term of incarceration.

Schwartz argues that extending probation regulations into the rest of a person's life strips the person of their First Amendment right to free speech.

Source: (c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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