Judge was right to invalidate sex-offender Internet law

Monday, February 20, 2012

A federal district judge’s recent ruling in Doe v. Jindal invalidating a Louisiana law restricting social-media use by former sex offenders correctly applied fundamental constitutional principles.

The law banned the “unlawful use or access of social media,” which included “the using or accessing of social networking websites, chat rooms and peer-to-peer networks by a person who is required to register as a sex offender.” It provided some serious punishments, including a 10-year sentence for a first offense and a 20-year sentence for any subsequent conviction under the law.

The legislation sounds reasonable at first blush. After all, the protection of minors remains a paramount interest in our legal system and taking away social media would remove one avenue for would-be sex offenders to contact children.

However, laws must be crafted with proper precision. They can’t sweep too broadly or fail to define or explain key terms. If they do, then they’re unconstitutionally overbroad and/or vague. In First Amendment terms, they would restrict too much speech, or leave unclear which kinds of speech would be restricted.

U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson found that this sex-offender law was both overbroad and vague.

Too broad, he said, because it would criminalize substantial amounts of protected speech. The law would prohibit former sex offenders from reading many online newspapers, using Facebook or MySpace, or even accessing the federal court’s website. Too vague because the plaintiffs, two former sex offenders, “refrained from accessing many websites that would otherwise be permissible for fear that they may unintentionally and unknowingly violate the law,” Jackson wrote.

The plaintiffs noted that they declined to use their “web-based e-mail accounts” for fear of violating the law.

Make no mistake about it: Government officials should pass laws protecting children from sex offenders. But they must not ignore basic constitutional principles in doing so.

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