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New law banning sex offenders from social networks a free speech flop?

by Cat Mayin Koo
March 09, 2010


Peter Chapman, a 33-year-old convicted rapist, was jailed for life Monday in England for killing Ashleigh Hall, 17, in October. Chapman lured the teenager by putting up a phony Facebook profile posing as a teenage boy.   

Illinois passed a law that took effect Jan 1. to target internet predators like Chapman. The law makes it a felony for registered sex offenders to use social networking.    

“Predators are real and dangerous,” said Rep. Darlene Senger, a co-sponsor of the public act. “In order to become a registered sex offender, you’re not just taking a picture of someone, you’re doing something criminal.”  

Senger gave the example of a 42-year-old sex offender who tried to target a 14-year-old Naperville girl by posing as a teenage boy on Facebook. The girl’s mother was suspicious and alerted law enforcement, which thwarted their potential meeting.  

However, the law treads on free speech rights if the crimes that got the offenders in trouble were not clearly related to social media, said David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar who teaches at Vanderbilt University.  

There is a risk of the law going overboard and seriously violating the First Amendment if it applied to all sex offenders, Hudson said.   

“It restricts a whole range of media and [offenders] could be using social networking as a medium to communicate to family and friends,” he said.   

The Illinois law that amends the Criminal Code of 1961 defines social networking as people using a “website containing profile web pages of the members ...[that] provides members of, or visitors to, such website the ability to leave messages or comments.” 

Nebraska, which has passed a similar law, recently won a lawsuit by unnamed plaintiffs over the social media ban. New York’s law goes further than Illinois’, requiring registered sex offenders to report their e-mail addresses and on-line aliases to state authorities.    

Last December, New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo told reporters that in compliance with that law, 2,782 Facebook accounts and 1,796 MySpace accounts were closed in the state.According to the national sex offender registry, familywatchdog.us, there are approximately 545,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S., 24,000 in Illinois.  

John Cardillo, former New York cop and CEO of Sentinel Tech Holding Corp., a company that works with social media giants such as MySpace, to identify and boot off sex offenders, said  the risk of them  communicating online is too great to ignore.  

“You have to err on the side of safety,” said Cardillo, whose company uses dozens of identifiers to police the Internet.    

When a sex offender commits a crime that severe, Cardillo contended, they surrender other freedoms, and giving up social media is a small price to pay. 

“You really don’t know how bad a sex offender is,” he said.  

He wasn’t concerned with protecting their free speech rights.  

“I couldn’t care less about the offenders,” Cardillo said. “I care about stopping more victims from getting targeted.”