Scarlet-Letter Status: Should Sex Offenders Admit Crimes on Facebook?
On August 1, 2012, a new law in Louisiana will require sex offenders to register their criminal histories on social networking sites like Facebook. Because names like “the Scarlet Letter law” are being bandied about in the worst possible way, there seems to be some confusion about what the law is, what it does, and who it affects.
On its surface, the legislation might seem like a political ploy in a post-Katrina state painted solid red. Lawmakers who voted “Yea” can now appear tough on crime, savvy to technology issues, and protective of children, all while beating up the most-detested segment of the criminal population. And while the political benefits do probably apply, this legislation has a history that suggests careful thought, with goals loftier than the next election cycle.
Four months ago, a district court struck down a precursor to the law about to take force. Louisiana Revised Statute 14:91.5 denied chat room and social networking access to persons convicted of “indecent behavior with juveniles,” “pornography involving juveniles” “computer-aided solicitation of a minor,” “video voyeurism,” or sexual offenses in which the victim was a minor. The law was defeated in court because it was deemed too broad. (How to you define a chat room, for example? Can any site with a comments section be considered one?) Lawmakers went back to work, with a close eye on the First Amendment.
Presently (in Louisiana, at least) sexual offenders are required to register their names, addresses, crimes, and photographs whenever they move near schools, parks, or any place where children might congregate. This process involves direct mail (Louisiana residents will be familiar with the yellow postcards that occasionally appear in mailboxes) and public notice in the newspaper.
The goal of the new Internet bill focuses on extending the notification law online. Already, there are several federal, state, and independent sex offender registries on the web, some of which actually overlay the addresses of convicted offenders on an interactive Google map.