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Recast sex offender bill on way to Indiana Senate

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CHARLES WILSON,

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Indiana lawmakers rushed Tuesday to narrow the scope of a court-overturned ban on social networking for sex offenders, but it wasn't clear whether the reworked proposal would be able to withstand future legal challenges over free-speech rights.

The bill the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law unanimously sent to the Senate floor Tuesday rewrites a complete ban dating from 2008 that was overturned by a federal court on Jan. 23. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said the old law was too broad and violated freedom of speech.

Two Republican legislators rewrote the ban earlier this session, but critics said it would still virtually ban offenders from using social media, even if they don't try to directly contact children and their past crimes had nothing to do with the Internet. The amended version approved Tuesday applies only to offenders convicted of child-related sex crimes who knowingly use social networks, instant messaging or chat rooms to communicate with children below age 16.

"It's much narrower now than it was," said Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, the bill's sponsor.

But Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said he still wasn't sure the bill was narrow enough. For one thing, the bill would penalize offenders who have already finished their time in prison and on probation.

"You're presuming that a person who's been convicted of the offense 20 years ago could not possibly be rehabilitated over it and have a legitimate conversation with somebody below the age of 16," Landis said. "You can meet them face-to-face privately and have a conversation if you want, but you can't do it remotely."

Courts have long allowed states to place restrictions on convicted sex offenders who have completed their sentences, controlling where many live and work and requiring them to register with police. But those laws don't deal with free speech, Landis said.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled last June that the state has a strong interest in protecting children and found that social networking had created a "virtual playground for sexual predators to lurk."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana had filed a class-action suit on behalf of a man who served three years for child exploitation and other sex offenders who are restricted by the ban even though they are no longer on probation.

The ACLU contended that even though the Indiana law is only intended to protect children from online sexual predators, the ban prevents sex offenders from using the websites for legitimate political, business and religious purposes.

Federal judges have barred similar laws in Nebraska and Louisiana. Louisiana legislators passed a new, narrower law last year that requires sex offenders to identify themselves on Facebook and similar sites. A federal judge struck down part of Nebraska's law last October.

2/5/2013