Facebook: Sex Offenders Need Not Apply!
Two articles dealing with Facebook caught my attention recently. The first by DeConto described a North Carolina lawsuit challenging state statute §14-202.5 as unconstitutional. This law prohibits registered sex offenders, …. “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages on the commercial social networking Web site.” Violations are a Class I felony (punishable but up to 5 years or fine or both). The arguments appear to be centered on freedom of speech and the law is too broad.
At about the same time an article was written by Brennan describing how difficult it was for a New York police department to keep sex offenders off of Facebook. The article noted:
“But local law enforcement is almost powerless to monitor sex offenders allowed to use websites such as Facebook. ‘We have our hands tied, unless they’re supposed to refrain (from using social networking),’ said Steuben County Sheriff Joel Ordway. Ted Murray, Hornell police chief, agreed with Ordway. ‘Unless they’re on probation or parole, there are no restrictions prohibiting them from being on a site like that (Facebook),’ he said.” 1
So we have articles noting a legal challenge against a law restricting sex offenders from Facebook and another noting a different state’s law enforcement being practically powerless to remove sex offenders from social networking sites (SNS). What is the story? Are sex offenders allowed on Facebook?
Drum roll please… the answer is… sex offenders are prohibited from using Facebook. Take a look at their user agreement. Specifically: Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, 4. Registration and Account Security, Item 6, reflects: “You will not use Facebook if you are a convicted sex offender.”Facebook goes a step further and provides a method for notifying them of convicted sex offenders on their site.
Why would Facebook have such a policy? They are a private concern and have a right to set their policy as long as it doesn’t discriminate. Sex offenders, last time I checked are not a protected class. So they can set their policy to not exclude them. Some users may actually join Facebook or at least feel some comfort in joining because of this policy. They join with the belief that sex offenders aren’t allowed on the website, a belief that is enforced by Facebook’s policy on reporting sex offenders for action. That is what is called “freedom of association,” another one of those constitutional rights we have. So a private company sets up a rule excluding a non-protected group from joining, a group that represents a risk to minors. I am sure the courts will decide whose rights are more compelling, the sex offender’s first amendment right or the general public’s to associate with whom they chose.
During the discussion we need not forget that SNS are fundamentally different from other communicationvenues in the real world. A sex offender can be anyone they want to be on a SNS. They can be kid or the opposite sex. They can pretend to be several different people, all in an attempt to entice or mislead a minor. They can’t easily accomplish these tricks in the real world. Additionally, in those public places in the real world there are police walking around…parents…other kids….folks that can stop them or at least identify them. A sex offender on a SNS can hide, manipulate, and prey, without much concern about someone seeing them and/or identifying them before they strike. It is different than the real world and the danger can be much higher indeed!
So what does all this mean for a community supervision officer with a sex offender who has a Facebook profile? Consider the following suggestions:
- Know what your state laws and/or supervision conditions are pertaining to sex offenders having a SNS. If a sex offender has a profile against a state statute this is obviously a new law violation. It may also be a violation of supervision conditions.
- Check to see if the sex offender is reporting all Internet accounts and identifiers when they registered.2If the Facebook profile is not being reported, depending upon state law, they might not be maintaining their sex offender registration. This can be either a new law violation or a technical violation.
- Even sex offenders who are not registered are violating the Facebook’s user agreement. A case can be made that they are gaining unauthorized access to Facebook’s website by maintaining the profile. This may be a violation of a state law regarding exceeding computer access or trespass. Think in the real world. Would law enforcement allow an offender to loiter or trespassing in a location they have been told they are not suppose to be at?
- Use common sense. It could be the offender didn’t know about the prohibitions and the matter might be resolved by the offender deleting the account, with a follow up to Facebook. Or it might require you to ratchet up the supervision or get law enforcement involved. For instance, what would a sex offender be up to with a Facebook profile with 50 minors as “Friends”? Why conceal such a profile from their sex offender registration or supervision officer if it was innocence conduct? Investigate and follow where the evidence leads!
Now some of you maybe wondering how do I find out if my sex offenders have a Facebook profile? Well, develop your skills. Seek training on it. The High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA.org) is a great place to start. Join and get to their conference, which by the way usually has excellent sessions on social networking investigations.
If you don’t think it is important to be concerned about a supervised sex offender on a SNS check out Burton’s article below. It is about a law suit filed against Cook County Probation Department regarding a sex offender case. The suit was filed by a mother who found a sex offender, not online through MySpace® like her daughter…but in act of raping her in her own bedroom. For now remember, convicted sex offenders are not authorized to use Facebook!
1 I am not sure what to make of Brennan’s article. In 2008, New York passed the Electronic Securing and Targeting of Online Predators Act (e-STOP) which requires sex offenders register all of their Internet accounts and identifiers; authorizes the release of state sex offender Internet identifiers to social networking sites; and requires, as a condition of probation or parole, mandatory restrictions on a sex offender’s access to the Internet where the offender’s victim was a minor, the Internet was used to commit the offense, or the offender was designated a level 3 (highest level) offender. As such it would appear New York’s law would be rather conducive to removing sex offenders from social networking sites, including Facebook.
2 It is a federal requirement under the Adam Walsh Act of 2006 and the Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act of 2008 (the KIDS Act of 2008) that sex offenders are to disclose all Internet identifiers. However, not all states are up to speed with the federal sex offender registration requirements. Make sure you know your state’s sex offender registeration requirements.
Brennan, Lynn, “The Ugly Side of Facebook”, The Evening Tribune Retrieved from http://www.eveningtribune.com/features/x286167677/The-ugly-side-of-Facebook
Burton, Cherly, “Mother files suit for alleged rape victim, 13″ Retrieved from http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/local&id=7922281
DeConto, Jesse, “Pol Defends Keeping Pervs off Facebook” The Raleigh, N.C. News & Observer Retrieved from http://news.bostonherald.com/news/national/south/view/20110129pol_defends_keeping_pervs_off_facebook/srvc=home&position=recent
Facebook User Agreement, Dated October 4, 2010,Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, 4.Registration and Account Security, Item 6, Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/terms.php.
North Carolina Revised General Statutes, Chapter 14, Criminal Law. Retreived from http://www.ncsu.edu/police/Information/NCLaw.html
North Carolina § 14-202.5. Ban Use of Commercial Social Networking Web Sites by Sex Offenders. Retrieved from http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/enactedlegislation/statutes/html/bysection/chapter_14/gs_14-202.5.html