Social media empires like Facebook and Instragram have built an entire world of communities and sub-communities catered to specific interests and social groups. With nearly 2 billion users on Facebook, it would be the most populous nation on earth were it a sovereign state. Municipalities, states, and even countries are scrambling to keep up with recent and impending changes as our society molds around this new digital age, and many governments disagree on an appropriate approach.
Texas, a state with a reputation for being harsh on crime, has come face-to-face with this dilemma by implementing a rigid policy on incarcerated offenders’ use of social media. In 2016, the state changed its policy concerning inmates, prohibiting the existence of personal social media pages while incarcerated (even if friends and family maintain the page). Texas isn’t unique in this ruling, as many other states practice the same policy. Reagan County: 59.10 offenders/ 10,000 residents has the highest concentration of sex crimes in Texas.
However, the state is facing threats to another law which prohibits the use of social media and other forum-based websites by sex offenders who aren’t incarcerated. In June, the United States Supreme Court ruled against the same law in North Carolina, citing violations to free speech. While the ruling didn’t include Texas-specific laws, authorities and law-makers are preparing for policy changes as the Supreme Court ruling will almost inevitably hinder Texas’s law against social media for sex offenders.
Interest groups have collided over this issue, as every side attempts to influence policy in this arena. Texas attorneys general, Ken Paxton, advocates the stringent law, using statistics as evidence. According to Paxton and 13 other state attorneys general who signed a brief to the high court, “The problem is that social media is a dangerous place for children and that registered sex offenders disproportionately commit additional sex crimes online.”
Paxton and the other attorneys general argued that the law advocates for children in the virtual world in the same way laws regarding playgrounds and school property protect them in the physical one. Supreme Court justices, however, rejected this with a majority vote. According to Justice Kennedy, “A fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more.”
Executive director of Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, Mary Sue Molnar, celebrated the Supreme Court decision, which will eventually affect Texas policy, by stating, “Even though someone committed a crime, once they’ve served their sentence, just like any other person who’s committed any other type of crime, there needs to be a process [to] move forward. It’s almost impossible … to make your way … without social media.”
The Texas ruling is sure to be soon under fire as the Supreme Court ruling set a precedent, but in the meantime it specifically prohibits the use of sites which may host children. Under current Texas law, websites which don’t allow children to participate are fair game for sex offenders, as the law focuses on protecting children against offenders and not on prohibiting the development and rehabilitation of offenders through access to online information.
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