By Sarah Bernstein
Anyone who’s watched an episode of “Catfish” knows that not everyone you meet on the internet is who they say they are. And if you are an active social media user, hopefully you screen your inbox accordingly (which means not accepting a friend request from someone with one profile picture and zero mutual friends). Unfortunately, users with preying eyes and negative intentions still slip through the cracks on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, leading to real-life crimes.
Back in 2008, North Carolina passed a law banning registered sex offenders from all social networks that allow minors as members. Now, almost a decade later, the law is at risk of being repealed by the Supreme Court for restricting free speech. To be fair, the social media landscape of our nation has changed drastically since 2008.
The demographic of social media users is not primarily “young” people anymore— even grandma has a Facebook. User habits have evolved, making sites like Facebook and Twitter a primary source of news and information. Additionally, plenty of non-social media apps (like Lyft or Venmo) connect users through Facebook instead of requiring them to manually create an account. While social media is still considered a privilege, not a right, restricted access has the potential to put people at a disadvantage.
That being said, the law was put into place for a reason— to protect minors from potential harm by limiting offenders’ access to them. While this preventative measure makes sense when applied to offenders who previously harassed underage children, it is important to take into account the extent of people it effects. Not all registered sex offenders committed their crime against a minor. In some cases, their crimes were hardly of a sexual nature at all. Eleven states require sex offender registration for peeing in public.
In California, flashing your breasts can lead to arrest and requires sex offender registration. And in many states, children who take and share nude photos of themselves can potentially be listed as sex offenders for life. Even if North Carolina did not enforce the law an offender broke, he or she can still be registered as a result of out-of-state conviction. The spectrum of offenses that require an individual to register as a sex offender is broad. Is it really fair to ban all registered sex offenders, regardless of the nature of their offenses?
Collectively banning everyone seems extreme, especially when being on the list does not necessarily mean an individual poses an active threat to minors. Practically speaking, this punishment does not always fit the crime. In 2017, being barred from Facebook is similar to being banned from the phonebook. Not only does it restrict your access to information and connectedness with others, but it potentially limits the ability for others to connect with you. And while plenty of people live happily off-the-radar where social media is concerned, it is their lifestyle choice to abstain.
The safety and privacy of minors online is not a matter that should be taken lightly, but neither is revoking an individual’s social media privilege. While the North Carolina law is harsh, its intent is valid. Instead of repealing the law in its entirety, maybe lawmakers need to deal less in absolutes. By screening registered sex offenders on a case by case basis, law enforcement could keep potentially dangerous users off social media without unnecessarily banning others.
The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision in June.
Sarah Bernstein, FCRH ’17, is a communications major from Salisbury, Maryland.