NEW YORK, N.Y. - Today the New York Civil Liberties Union, Rutgers Law School Constitutional Rights Clinic, and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York filed a lawsuit to end New York’s policies of banning internet and social media access for people required to register as sex offenders who are released on parole or supervised release, even when they did not use the internet or social media as part of the offense. The suit seeks to end the banishment of formerly incarcerated people on the registry from forums essential to 21th century life, including sites that allow people to apply for jobs, search for housing, stay in touch with family, and read the news.
Through its directives, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) imposes conditions of release that prohibit all people convicted of sex offenses from using the internet, owning a computer, or accessing social media while under community supervision. Similarly, the Electronic Security and Targeting of Online Predators Act (e-STOP) bans certain categories of people on the registry from using all social media for any purpose, even when they have no history of misusing it.
e-STOP was spearheaded by Governor Andrew Cuomo while he was Attorney General in 2008, targeting social media platforms like MySpace, AIM, and Facebook in its early days. Since this time, the scale and use of social media has exponentially expanded. e-STOP’s broad definition of social media, which includes many websites that simply allow users to create profiles and comment on products or news, now covers internet platforms that offer no realistic possibility for sexual offending like Amazon and LinkedIn.
“The internet is the modern public square, and it reaches further than we could have imagined, even ten years ago.” said Daniel Lambright, staff attorney at the NYCLU. “To enforce an internet ban for people who have completed their sentences and are most in need of connection is draconian and a severe deprivation of liberty.”
The lawsuit draws on a 2017 United States Supreme Court decision in Packingham v. North Carolina that unanimously held that a North Carolina law criminalizing access to social media by people on the registry violated the First Amendment. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the internet and social media are essential forums for First Amendment activities, and thus laws banning internet and social media access must be narrowly tailored.
This lawsuit was filed against Tina Stanford, the chair of the Board of Parole, and Anthony Annucci, Acting Commissioner of DOCCS. It argues that the conditions imposed by DOCCS and e-STOP are grossly overbroad. The bans apply without regard to whether someone poses a risk to reoffend through the internet or social media. Instead, these bans block access to First Amendment forums to the vast majority of people who will never use the internet or social media to commit an offense. They also block access to websites that offer no possibility of harming minors. They cut off people on the registry from participating in public life, including applying for jobs, searching for housing, staying in touch with family, and even reading the news online. People on the registry are denied meaningful opportunities to reintegrate into communities, rebuild a life, and strengthen the support systems necessary to prevent recidivism.
“A key ingredient of successful reintegration for formerly incarcerated individuals is to provide them with access to the 21st century tools necessary to maintain jobs, housing and contact with loved ones. A blanket restriction on the possession of computers, for people who have never been convicted of or even charged with abusing the internet, is not only a violation of the First Amendment, but a sure-fired way to decrease the possibility of successful reentry and increase the chances of recidivism” said Karen Murtagh, Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.
“People on sex offender registries are often in dire need of services, support, and meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation” said Molly Biklen, deputy legal director at the NYCLU. “Denying people released for these offenses the ability to reintegrate into society by using the internet to apply to jobs, communicate with loved ones, or seek out treatment does not serve the goal of preventing sexual violence.”
"DOCCS is supposed to support reentry into society for people under community supervision,” said Alexis Karteron, director of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic. “By banning people on the registry from using the internet, DOCCS is doing the exact opposite. This lawsuit seeks to remedy that."
State courts in West Virginia and Illinois have already applied Packingham to invalidate similar bans on social media and internet access for people on sex offender registries.
Attorneys on the case include Molly Biklen and Daniel Lambright from the NYCLU; Alexis Karteron from the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic; and James Bogin and Michael Cassidy from the Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.