Federal Lawsuit Challenges New York Bans on Social Media Access for Sex Offenders

New York laws banning internet and social media access for all sex offenders — even those who never used the internet or social media to commit a sex offense — violates the First Amendment, says a new lawsuit filed by five individuals in Jones v. Stanford.

The N.Y. State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision bars all internet access and social media to those on parole or post-release supervision. “These bans apply to individuals who have used the internet or social media to commit an offense,” the lawsuit reads.

Because of these onerous restrictions, the plaintiffs and others similarly situated have trouble navigating day-to-day life because so much of life is conducted online. “Frequent engagement in online activities is an indispensable part of modern life,” the suit reads. The complaint also cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Packingham v. North Carolina, which invalidated a North Carolina law that barred convicted sex offenders from accessing social media.

The lawsuit quotes Packingham for the principle that “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.” The plaintiffs can’t go online to try to find a job, shop for groceries and other necessities, discuss their religious faith, or communicate with their elected representatives.

The five plaintiffs are all either serving post-release supervision, or on parole for offenses that requires them to register as sex offenders. All five plaintiffs, because of their former offenses, are barred from accessing social media and the internet.

“The internet is the modern public square, and it reaches further than we could have imagined, even 10 years ago.” said Daniel Lambright, staff attorney at the N.Y. Civil Liberties Union, in a news release. “To enforce an internet ban for people who have completed their sentences and are most in need of connection is draconian and a severe deprivation of liberty.”

Though not mentioned in the lawsuit, these bans impose even more of a burden at a time when individuals in New York are confined indoors because of COVID-19. In these stressful current times, many may find a modicum of relief online.

David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).

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