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7th Circuit strikes down sex-offender social media ban as unconstitutional

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Indiana Code 35-42-4-12 prohibiting certain sex offenders from using social networking sites that allow minors to participate is not narrowly tailored to serve the state’s interest, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held Wednesday. The judges ordered a permanent injunction entered preventing enforcement of the current law.

John Doe, a Marion County man who is a convicted sex offender not on supervised release, filed this lawsuit on behalf of himself and other similarly situated people who would be banned from using certain social media, like Facebook, or chat rooms or instant messaging under the law. Doe wanted to be able to monitor his teenage son’s Facebook account, as well as use social media for business purposes.  

U.S. Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled in June 2012 that the law is not unconstitutional and that Doe and others have alternative channels of social media communication they could use, such as blogging or posting on message boards. She noted that this law aims to prevent and deter sexual exploitation of minors by certain sex offenders whereas other laws that prohibit online solicitation of children aim to punish those who have already committed the crime of solicitation.

In John Doe v. Prosecutor, Marion County, Indiana, 12-2512, the 7th Circuit found the law to be content neutral but is not narrowly tailored. The law targets “substantially more activity than the evil it seeks to redress,” Judge Joel Flaum wrote. Indiana has other methods to combat unwanted and inappropriate communication between minors and sex offenders and those statutes have enhanced penalties for using a computer network and “better advance Indiana’s interest in preventing harmful interaction with children (by going beyond social networks.)”

The 7th Circuit noted that the General Assembly could more precisely target illicit communication or increase the sentences for solicitation.

Flaum also wrote this decision should not be read to affect the District Court’s latitude in fashioning terms of supervised release or states from implementing similar solutions.

“We conclude by noting that Indiana continues to possess existing tools to combat sexual predators. The penal system offers speech-restrictive alternatives to imprisonment. Regulations that do not implicate the First Amendment are reviewed only for a rational basis. The Constitution even permits civil commitment under certain conditions. But laws that implicate the First Amendment require narrow tailoring. Subsequent Indiana statutes may well meet this requirement, but the blanket ban on social media in this case regrettably does not,” he wrote.

 

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