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New York Lifts Blanket Internet Ban on Sex Offenders

by Jayson Hawkins

A settlement was finalized on January 19, 2022, in a lawsuit challenging a New York law barring those on the state sex offender registry from accessing the internet. The settlement allows some registered sex offenders now to access and use the internet, unless they previously used it in committing their offense.

Attorneys from the New York Civil Liberties Union and Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic filed the suit in federal court for the Eastern District of New York in March 2020 on behalf of plaintiffs Vernon Jones, Vladimir Krull, Thomas Mitchell, Compton Mohabir, and Corydon Umber. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, they accused state Board of Parole Chairperson Tina M. Stanford and then-Director of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), Anthony Annucci, of violating their First Amendment free speech rights with an internet ban that left them “banished en masse from an essential resource that helps them reintegrate into society.”

The law in question, the Electronic Security and Targeting of Online Predators (e-STOP) Act of 2008, places “commercial social networking websites” off-limits to any registered sex offender (a) whose victim was a minor, or (b) who is “designated a level three sex offender” or (c) who used the internet “to facilitate the commission of the crime.”

But the law went on to define the websites at issue as any which allow creation of a user profile by an adult to engage in direct communication with a minor. As DOCCS quickly figured out, that wasn’t limited to social media sites like Facebook and Myspace but also included sites used for job searches, apartment hunting, staying in touch with family—even reading the news. Its Directive 9201, which implemented the law, was thus applied broadly to all registered level three sex offenders in the state whose victim was a minor, regardless of whether the internet was used in committing their offense.

So after hearings on the issue, the Court decided Plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits of their claim under the test laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Packingham v. North Carolina, 137 S. Ct. 1730 (2017), quoting that to note the ban appeared to “burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the … government’s legitimate interests” in protecting juveniles from sexual predation.

Because the ban was extended to all websites with a social media component, it was not “narrowly tailored,” the Court continued, nor did it provide “a mechanism to conduct an individualized assessment as to whether a Registrant poses a risk of misusing social media.” Moreover, it had a high probability of inflicting “irreparable harm” on Plaintiffs through myriad lost opportunities for employment and commerce offered by the modern internet.

Thus, the Court issued a preliminary injunction on September 9, 2020, barring DOCCS from blocking social media access to sex offenders who did not use the internet in committing their offense. See Jones v. Stanford, 489 F. Supp. 3d 140 (E.D.N.Y. 2020).

The final settlement includes similar provisions, permitting DOCCS to impose internet restrictions on sex offenders only if there are “legitimate concerns about a person’s likelihood of sexually reoffending by using the internet or social media, or where restrictions are deemed necessary to ensure compliance with a specific goal of rehabilitation.” DOCCS must also report any further policy changes to Plaintiff’s attorneys. See Jones v. Stanford, USDC (E.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:20-cv-01332.

In a statement, DOCCS promised to comply with the settlement terms within 120 days. But it also insisted, “The Department maintains the ability to impose individualized restrictions when appropriate for the safety of the public.” 

Additional source: WTEN

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Related legal case

Jones v. Stanford