Federal Judge Invalidates Kentucky Law Barring Sex Offender Access to Social Media

Provisions of Kentucky’s Sex Offender Registration Act, which barred sex offenders from accessing any social media that likely could be accessed to minors violates the First Amendment, a federal district court judge has ruled.

The key challenged provision of the law provided: “No registrant shall knowingly or intentionally use a social networking Web site or an instant messaging or chat room program if that Web site or program allows a person who is less than eighteen (18) years of age to access or use the Web site or program.”

U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove wrote in Doe v. Kentucky ex rel. Tilley (E.D. Kent.  20, 2017) that this law “prohibits sex offender registrants from engaging in any speech whatsoever on a social media website, as innocent as that speech may be.”

Judge Tatenhove relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Packingham v. North Carolina (2017), which invalidated a similar North Carolina law on First Amendment grounds.

Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy explained: “By prohibiting sex offenders from using those websites, North Carolina with one broad stroke bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.”

The Kentucky law suffered from the same flaws – it was simply too broad to withstand constitutional review.

Many may view any law that targets sex offenders as a worthwhile goal.   But, the First Amendment protects all persons, including those convicted of past sex crimes.   The First Amendment also prevents the government from enacting laws that deny or block huge swaths of information to people.

Judge Tatenhove deserves credit for following Supreme Court precedent and applying First Amendment principles.

David L. Hudson, Jr. is the author of several First Amendment books, including First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012).

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