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Internet Restrictions for Ex-Offenders May Go Too Far

Controversy swirls over restricting the use of social media by people who have been convicted of a sex offense. Some who believe that all people who have been convicted of a sex crime are likely to repeat their crimes argue that it is necessary to bar them from using all or part of the Internet. On the other side of the argument, others assert that making that assumption overgeneralizes and potentially creates a constitutional First Amendment problem.

While Colorado has yet to be involved in legal developments regarding Internet restrictions, legislatures and courts in other parts of the country have acted recently to refine the debate.

In Indiana, the American Civil Liberties Union is advocating for a man who was barred under state law from expressing his opinions about news stories published on local websites. After serving his sentence for a child exploitation conviction, the man was released from prison in 2003 and forbidden to use social media. Local news sites, though, are set up to allow commentary only through Facebook, and he could not have a Facebook account under the ban on social media use. Preventing him from offering comments on the websites, the ACLU argued, was an infringement of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

A judge upheld the Indiana law in June, declaring that the state has an interest in protecting children. The judge noted that the law bars anyone convicted of a sex offense from using social networking sites that children can access, and said that sexual predators lurk on these sites. The judge justified limiting access to a part of the Internet – social media – by saying that the rest of the Internet remains open to everyone, including people who have served sentences for sex offenses. The ACLU will be assisting in an appeal of the Indiana decision.

Meanwhile, courts have struck down restrictive laws in other states. A few years ago, a federal judge acted to block a portion of a Nebraska law that banned social networking. Earlier this year, a U.S. District Court judge found that a law in Louisiana forbidding Internet use was overly broad and unreasonable in restricting important activities that people engage in every day.

The Louisiana legislature countered that ruling by passing a new law that narrowed the restrictions on Internet use, so that people who have been convicted of a sex offense will be allowed to use email, instant messaging, photo sharing, online shopping, government websites and news sites.

For years, states have been allowed to restrict the activities of people convicted of sex offenses even after they have served their time by requiring registration with law enforcement, limiting possible interaction with children in the workplace and even restricting where they may live. With the Internet so much a part of life today, lawmakers must be very careful to avoid adding restrictions that could violate people’s constitutional rights.

Considering the long-term impact a conviction for a sex offense can have, anyone who is charged with this kind of crime needs an experienced defense attorney on their side. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty and has rights that deserve to be protected.