Is Facebook a human right or a weapon?

There was a very disturbing and significant social media-related court ruling last week that, curiously, has received little notice or commentary on the web. Let’s change that shall we?

A U.S. Federal Appeals Court ruled that an Indiana state law that bans registered sex offenders from Facebook is unconstitutional.

The ruling means thousands of Indiana’s registered sex offenders are now free to use Facebook and other social sites used by millions of children with computers and smartphones.

Is social media a human right?

The appeal was made by an Indianapolis man who had been convicted and served three years in prison on two counts of child exploitation.  The overturned Indiana law had said that anyone convicted of sex crimes against children could be barred for life from using any social media site accessible to children.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana represented the man and argued that sex offenders are unjustly barred from using Twitter and Facebook, which can be used to do legitimate business over the Internet.  The ACLU position was that the state must protect children “but should not do this with a law so broad that it prevents someone convicted of an offense years, or even decades ago, from engaging in a host of innocent communications via social media.”

The 7th District US Court of Appeals agreed with the ACLU and overturned the law, which has been in place since 2008.

I am a defender of free speech of course but believe this ruling is exceptional in how it ignores the power of social media as a potential weapon of destruction. Why is the State of Indiana willingly and knowingly putting convicted child molesters back in business?

Re-arming the criminals?

There are lots of examples in our society where we take freedom away from those who aim to harm us and infringe on the freedom of others.  If you kill somebody, your right to carry a gun and live free comes to an abrupt end … probably forever. If you are known child molester, you need to stay away from school yards, Boy Scout troops, youth groups, and any other place children gather. Forever.

For a child molester, Facebook is an intoxicating playground. How can we allow our government to put this weapon back in the hands of the criminal?  Do we really think convicted child molesters living free in our community will not be preying on more innocent children through online social networks?

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, there are approximately 750,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, a number that has soared 23 percent in five years, in part due to web-based predatory behavior.

Do you want these people hunting your children on Facebook?

Taking action

Although this is a state issue, it has national implications. I realize that the legal system is complex and many court cases are nuanced. This is not one of them. This is just wrong. Scary wrong.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller

Greg Zoeller

Here is the good news. The Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller hasn’t announced yet whether he will accept this decision or appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I have not been able to find an email address for this gentleman but I am going to tweet him at @GregZoeller.  If you would like to join me, here is a handy tweet for you:

Attorney General @GregZoeller, appeal the ruling that allows sex offenders to stalk children on Facebook. Thank you.  

Of course no law can substitute for good parenting and teaching your children about being safe on the web. One good resource is here.

Please feel free to weigh in on this issue in the comment section.

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  • Well, perhaps then they would be required to register all their social media accounts with the nation registry of sex offenders. We know where they live, so why not inform parents of where their cyber homes are too? Just a thought.

  • tianakai

    This is very interesting and scary since I have little brothers on Facebook. Lisa has a great point that there has to be a way to manage it. It seems like it would be very expensive to oversee all of the offenders. Maybe schools would need to get involved as well (they probably already are) in helping parents and children learn how to manage their online interactions.

    Facebook should build an app that requires all the offenders to register themselves and that also allows children to block them all somehow…

  • An interesting idea but who could possibly monitor this? I think it is a simple to idea to tell sex offenders: “If you are on Facebook, you go to jail.”

  • An interesting option. Would be easy to get around that but building in alerts that could be generated by Facebook could keep children safe. Good idea.

  • christinegeraci

    Mark, thank you for doing a post on this. As the parent of two very young children, I often think about how I’m going to deal with stuff like this when my kids are old enough to use whatever social networks exist when they come of age.

    My two (or three cents): Clearly, this is a legal decision that needs more thought.
    Personally, I think banning sex offenders from using social networks is only
    part of the solution. Yes, if you’re a sex offender, you should be banned
    from places where children congregate. But consider this: When I take my
    children out in public, to a restaurant, a supermarket, or wherever…I’m very
    aware that I have no control over what people around me might be thinking about
    when they look at my kids. If I dwell on this, it can be very disheartening and
    scary. But it won’t stop me from taking my kids out in public. I want to teach
    them to live life, to experience things—while keeping a healthy skepticism.

    I often think of social media use as akin to going out in public. Even though social networks are businesses that use what we reveal about ourselves to their advantage, WE are in control of what we reveal to others without actually interacting with them.

    Still, I think there’s an opportunity for social networks like Facebook to innovate
    some innate security controls that prevent registered sex offenders from
    interacting with, or even seeing photos of children on social networks. I’m
    also not against the idea of upping that minimum age of 13 for a Facebook user.

    I also think parents have a responsibility to monitor their children’s online
    social interactions, and talk with them about acceptable uses. Educating parents and students alike about the implications of their online behavior needs to be a higher priority in our school systems and our workplaces.

    I think all of this because you’re right: Social media is a potential weapon of
    destruction. I just think we need to consider the fact that sex offenders
    aren’t the only ones with the power to destroy.

  • Fantastic comment Christine! Thanks very much for this important perspective as a concerned and responsible parent.

  • I know sex offenses are the most despicable in the world, but I’d still want to raise a question.

    Sex offenses ruin the life of the victims. So does manslaughter. So do financial crimes. So does libel.

    Modern penal systems, as far as I have understood, aim at reforming the offenders so they can return into society.

    Are we demanding that the guy who got angry enough to kill his neighbor over a trivial dispute and is now released from prison should be forbidden to talk to anyone in his community after the release? Do we want to warn his new neighborhood about his previous offense?

    Are we demanding that those who swindled us or our relatives and friends out of their life savings and are now released from prison should be forbidden to ever have anything to do with money? Do we want to warn their new neighborhood about their previous offense?

    Are we demanding that the person who dragged our reputation through the mud and is now released from prison should be forbidden to ever publish an opinion on anyone or anything? Do we want to warn his/her new neighborhood about his/her previous offense?

    So why are we so adamant in demanding that a sex offender having served his (most often it’s “his”) sentence should be humiliated for the rest of his life?

    What if a former sex offender (reformed, for the purpose of my argument) sets up a B2C business that would greatly benefit from having a Facebook presence? Is it right to deprive someone of his income even after atonement?

    When someone has received the punishment society (note: society = “all of us”) has vested upon him or her, I think the issue should be closed.

    I understand sex offenses are an issue around which emotions run high. At least in theory, however, once someone has served his or her sentence, that should be the end of the punishment. Ongoing revenge isn’t the answer.

    What do you think?

  • First, your argument is a brave one and pretty much the sentiment of the appeal from the ACLU, so thanks for taking that stand.

    I do think there are some big differences between a child molester and some of the other crimes you depict here.

    First, the victim cannot protect themselves. Put another way, if somebody tortured dogs for years, would you give that person a dog because they want a dog? That would be stupid. Surely the life of a child, the innocence of a child, is above and beyond this example.

    Second, I’m not sure there is any reliable way test that a pedophile has been reformed. Even though an alcoholic is reformed, there is always a chance, maybe even a likelihood, that the old ways will return. If you are a drug addict, you cannot get a job in a pharmacy. Well, too bad, but that’s a smart decision. You do not put an addict back in the middle of temptation.

    Third, somebody can certainly have a productive and fulfilling life and not be on Facebook. It’s not like you would be keeping this person from earning a living or living a repentant life. 99% of the jobs in the world do not require you to be on Facebook.

    I have done some reading on this and Facebook is absolutely the motherlode for pedophiles. I think the only smart thing is to protect our children at all costs, especially when the true impact on the criminal is so small.

    Thanks for the courageous comment Kimmo but I still disagree.

  • Mark, I appreciate your reasoning and wasn’t aware of what ACLU says. Trying to detach emotion from the issue, as difficult as it is, let me try to explain my point of view:

    1) A court sentence is the punishment metered on an individual for a crime. A payment for what you did, if you will. When it’s served, the individual, in a way, should have a clean slate again. Otherwise, we’re not talking about atonement but revenge.

    2) A lot of legal discussion revolves around “cruel and unusual punishment”. There’s lots of cultural differences involved. Where I come from (German-Scandinavian legal culture), ancillary punishments like Aaron Swartz being forbidden to use the internet at all for the rest of his life, seem out of proportion. Just as I assume we both would probably oppose amputating the right hand of a thief, which is norm in hardline Sharia law.

    3) Yes, checks should be, and are being, enforced in all legislations to keep individuals convicted of certain crimes being exposed to temptation. I think that the State of Indiana, instead of “willingly and knowingly putting convicted child molesters back in business”, is just trying to strike a balance between unduly prolonged stigma and the protection of the people.

    I have three daughters myself, so I’m not that far detached from this discussion as people might think. And yes, I admit that in suitable circumstances, I could see myself organizing the lynch mob.

    In the end, it all comes down to What Is Right.

  • We’ll have to agree to disagree. I see a similarity here between a felon who is a drug addict who is forbidden from working in a pharmacy for life. That is part of the punishment and is best for the society and probably best for the person involved too. I think there is a difference between punishing a crime and protecting people from a dangerous addiction? A crime might be a mistake but an addiction is often a lifestyle.

  • Ultimately, the parents need to be responsible in teaching their kids how to wisely use the Internet. This is the bottom line, but it’s comforting when networks do what they can to be of assistance. This is a sticky issue, but we must do all we can to protect our kids from sexual assault and grooming.

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