Facebook recently celebrated the milestone of more than two billion monthly users. That’s more than one out of every four people on planet earth. Social media websites like Facebook has become a ubiquitous part of life, and American life in particular. It is the public forum of our times.
Together with YouTube, Twitter and other upstarts, Facebook represents the core of today’s ability to speak publicly and to be heard by others. While the content produced might not always be the most enlightening or erudite, it is still an unprecedented, and mostly beneficial, degree of democratic engagement and public discourse.
Hence It was welcome news when last month the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a North Carolina that banned certain felons from using social media. This bill, like many constitutionally-dubious measures, targeted a widely despised category of criminal: Sex offenders.
A registry of doubtful effectiveness
Sex offender registries are themselves of doubtful effectiveness. They are not seen to have a substantial deterrent effect or to otherwise protect potential child abuse victims. Actual experts on child abuse question the “stranger danger” thinking, on this topic at least, as deeply unproductive.
Sexual abuse most often happens not by strangers kidnapping children, but from relatives, caregivers, friends of the family, and other people well-known to the victim. Furthermore, sex offender registries frequently include a very wide variety of crimes, often far removed from cases of sexual assault or child molestation. In some states, something as trivial as public urination has resulted in such a “criminal” put on this registry for life.
Such laws have provided, instead, a way for politicians to grandstand. Registry laws heap special punishments on a class of criminals few have any desire to defend. Revulsion towards perpetrators of child sexual offenses are in some ways regarded as more heinous than murder. Hence it is easy to be seen as “getting tough” On these criminals.
Registry laws often include residency restrictions which can make it impossible for offenders to find a home anywhere in a city, in that practically everywhere is within a few hundred yards of a school, playground or church. Additionally, some include notice requirements, including the notorious knock-and-announce procedure to inform new neighbors. These measures increase recidivism by strangling a former offender’s attempt to reintegrate himself into society.
Court demonstrates why we continue to need judicial review
Now social media enters into this toxic brew. The idea of predators going after children on Facebook and Twitter is enough to cause panic. Once again, there is little evidence that this is common. Nevertheless, the North Carolina legislature passed a law to prohibit all registered sex offenders from using any social media website for life.
A unanimous Supreme Court rebuked that as a step too far. Demonstrating judicial review at its finest, the court applied the law dispassionately to protect the fundamental rights of a group of people that no political process would protect. Just like the First Amendment protects Nazis marching through Skokie, a Chicago suburb known for its Holocaust survivors, the Constitution protects even the most loathsome and vile of speakers.
In addition to striking down this lifetime gag order, the court underscored an important point: Social media and the internet is a core part of how Americans in the 21st Century exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association.