Facebook has updated its privacy settings to make it easier for users to control what is shown on their pages. / Joerg Koch, AP
INDIANAPOLIS -- An Indiana law barring most registered sex offenders from using social networking sites such as Facebook is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The law that bans sex offenders from using sites they know allow access to youths under the age of 18 is too broad, a three-judge panel determined, and "prohibits substantial protected speech."
To be upheld, the appeals court found, such a law needs to be more specifically tailored to target "the evil of improper communication to minors."
The ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Chicago overturned a June decision by a district court judge in Indianapolis that upheld the law enacted by the legislature in 2008.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a class-action suit challenging the law on behalf of sex offenders, including a man identified only as John Doe who served three years for child exploitation. The offenders were all restricted by the ban even though they had served their sentences and are no longer on probation.
"We reverse the district court and hold that the law as drafted is unconstitutional," judges Joel M. Flaum, John D. Tinder and John J. Tharp Jr. wrote in the ruling.
Republican state Sen. John Waterman, who authored the 2008 law, responded with a pledge to look for a new way to protect children from online predators that will pass Constitutional muster.
"We will study this issue again and make a new proposal," Waterman said in a statement. "Then, it will be up to the courts once more to decide whether it's narrow enough."
It was unclear Wednesday how many people may have been charged under the law over the past four years and what their immediate recourse might be.
Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said one thing is clear: Convictions will not automatically be vacated.
"There is no self-correction," he said, "in our criminal justice system."
Instead, those charged under the law will have to ask a court to vacate their conviction.
"It takes the person with a wrong conviction to initiate an action," Landis said.
Landis said he spoke out against the law when it was being discussed in the legislature "for the obvious reasons that it was overly broad and might interfere with employment opportunities."
But he said it was a hard sell because lawmakers have little sympathy for sex offenders - even when they have paid for their crimes.
"Often, with these kind of bills, your only success in killing them is to convince the committee chairman to not give it a hearing because you know everyone will vote for it when it comes up on the floor," he said.
That was the case with Waterman's bill. It sailed through the House and Senate without a single opposing vote. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the legislation into law March 24, 2008.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt upheld the law in June, ruling the state has a strong interest in protecting children and finding that social networking has created a "virtual playground for sexual predators." She acknowledged the law's reach was broad and "captures considerable conduct that has nothing to do" with the state's goal of protecting children from predators, but found offenders have "ample alternative channels of communication."
The law made a first violation a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail. However, any subsequent, unrelated violation would be a Class D felony, carrying a penalty of up to three years in jail.
"This law is overly broad," said Ken Falk, legal director for the ACLU of Indiana. "It would even bar someone who was convicted 40 years ago from participating in a Twitter feed with the Pope."
Falk said Indiana already has laws that prohibit anyone from soliciting or engaging in inappropriate with children - and they include enhanced penalties if the act is done on the Internet.
The broad prohibition in the 2008 law hinders legitimate, constitutionally protected online interactions with other adults at a time when that form of communication is as common and necessary as the telephone was just a few years ago, Falk said.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement issued by his office that he is reviewing the decision to assess the state's options.
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Court: Sex offender Facebook ban unconstitutional