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New Laws Banning Sex Offenders from Social Networks and Online Gaming May Go Too Far

A push is under way to restrict registrants from social networking, virtual gaming and online dating.
 
 
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This story originally appeared at Salon.

Imagine a little boy playing Xbox Live with a registered sex offender, a girl striking up a Facebook friendship with a child molester, a Match.com member going on a date with a convicted rapist. These are just a few of the both real world and imagined scenarios that have inspired attempts in recent weeks to restrict registered sex offenders from social networking, virtual gaming and online dating.

The aim of these approaches is understandable, but their effectiveness is questionable, and some experts see potential for it to backfire. What’s more, the breadth of these restrictions, and the inexactness of who is targeted, raise an issue unlikely to garner much sympathy: fairness to sex offenders.

On Thursday, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that through an initiative dubbed “Operation: Game Over,” several major gaming companies had removed the profiles of more than 3,500 registered sex offenders in the state. The day before, a Louisiana bill forbidding registered sex offenders from using social networking sites  was approved by a state House committee. (A similar bill was signed into law in Illinois in 2009 and put on hold in California in 2011.) Late last month, Match.com, eHarmony and the Spark Networks  signed a “joint statement of business principles” to attempt to screen out registered sex offenders.

First, to the legal concerns: The ACLU filed a lawsuit in response to an earlier version of the Louisiana law, which seemed to apply not only to social networking sites but to  most of the Internet, claiming that it was “overbroad” and would infringe upon “free speech rights under the First Amendment.” It was already signed into law but was struck down in February on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

OK, so banning sex offenders from accessing most sites on the Web is unconstitutional, but what about banning them in more limited ways? Constitutionally speaking, where can the line be drawn? There are already strict restrictions placed on where sex offenders can live in the real-world — how far can we go in limiting their existence in the virtual realm?

Those questions are being sorted out on a law-by-law basis, says Ruthann Robson, a professor at CUNY School of Law. The revised version of the Louisiana bill more narrowly focuses on sites just like Facebook, but it could still include professional networking sites like LinkedIn, she says, and it’s still “infringing upon a group of people’s First Amendment rights.” She also underscores that it’s “creating a new crime [i.e. using Facebook] based upon their previous conviction.”

Courts have imperfect guidelines for evaluating these cases, she says. “If you’re convicted of a crime and you serve your time, there are very few things that extend beyond that — like some states have  felony disenfranchisements and that sort of stuff,” Robson explains. “But when the United States Supreme Court upheld civil commitment and sex offender registries and all of that, they talked about it as civil and as not criminal.” Now, in evaluating whether bills like the one in Louisiana infringe on First Amendment rights, courts “don’t have an analogy, so sometimes they go toward criminal law, as though these people are in prison and as if this is part of punishment.”

Of course, many people believe that there are compelling reasons for that. As anyone who has ever watched TV news knows, some offenders use the Internet — whether it’s through chat rooms or a social networking site — to victimize children, but the threat is overblown, according to  research from the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. Bullying poses a greater threat online than sexual solicitation, and children’s greatest threat of sexual abuse comes from someone they know — a relative or family friend — not from a stranger on the other end of his or her Xbox. Still, protecting kids from predators with unprecedented access to them is important; there is no debate there. The question is how much good will be done by banning sex offenders from online venues populated with kids.

 
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