WATCH | As the Supreme Court weighs the free speech rights of sex offenders, we found hundreds of convicted offenders violating a separate ban instituted by Facebook. The big question isn't why they were posting, but whether they have a right to.
Circa heard from many of you about our investigation into sex offenders skirting the Facebook ban. Some of you said there's no room for registered offenders on social media. Others said it's problematic to ban all offenders, when they've been convicted for a wide variety of different crimes.
WATCH: Circa explain how it found sex offenders skirting Facebook's ban.
You can learn a lot about someone from Facebook. Many profiles give you insight on where people are from or what they do for a living. But there's something that's not listed: whether someone is a registered sex offender.
They don’t say it out front, because the site has a specific policy that doesn't allow convicted sex offenders on Facebook. The goal is to have a safe and open environment. Stacie Rumenap with the advocacy group Stop Child Predators said, "They don't want sex offenders as users. They’re trying to create a safe space.”
But Circa's nationwide investigation found offenders using that space against Facebook's policy. We compared hundreds of Facebook profiles with the sex offender registries from Alaska to Maine. In just a few days we found what appear to be offenders with active profiles from all 50 states, posting even though Facebook prohibits them from having an account.
“It’s unfortunate," Rumenap said. "Our kids aren’t safe when we have known registered sex offenders using social media, using Facebook.”
Circa's investigation found offenders of all races and varying ages, all with profiles that have been active in the last year. There were men and women, many with stunning records. We found profiles for offenders:
- Required to register for life
- Labeled as "sexually violent predators"
- Convicted for crimes involving children as young as three and six
- Convicted for child molestation, rape, sodomy, child pornography & other crimes
It doesn't matter what Facebook or these sites do, you are still going to have bad actors trying to circumvent the process.
But there’s a bigger question to consider when you start talking about the offenders on Facebook or social media. It’s not *why* are they posting, but do they have a right to?
Circa talked with Roger, a registered sex offender who asked us not to use his last name or show his face. It's been 26 years since he was convicted. Records show he hasn't reoffended. But he says he's still being punished by a social media ban. "Why should we be the only class of offenses that are never ever given a second chance?" Roger asked.
Roger shut down his Facebook account years ago after learning of the ban. He says he did that even though he thinks the policy is based on fear, stereotypes and safety guarantees no one can deliver, not even Facebook or other sites.
“Giving a blanket denial of access to Facebook doesn’t help," Roger said. "It doesn’t help. It just isolates registered citizens more and more. We’re ordinary people who’ve made a very, very serious mistake. And we’ve paid for it. And we just want the chance to be part of society again and not be treated like outcasts.”
Listen, we get it. It can be tough to feel sorry for Roger and the other 800,000 people on registries across the country. But when it comes to giving sex offenders access to social media, forget sympathy. Advocates say this is about free speech.
Janice Bellucci is an attorney who fights for sex offenders' rights as part of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws. “We need to, as a society, protect those constitutional rights even if we don’t necessarily like those people," Bellucci explained.
Bellucci is serious about this battle. She advises offenders to follow the rules and stay off social media sites that specifically ban sex offenders. But not only does she feel they don't make sense. Bellucci also believes they're unconstitutional. “The fact is once someone has paid their debts to society, then they have constitutional rights. Those rights are restored,” Bellucci said.
Rumenap countered, "I think it's very easy when we start looking at the rights of a sex offender to start forgetting about the rights of the victim."
The rights of sex offenders may depend on where they live. Although as a private company Facebook can set its own terms and conditions banning sex offenders, others are restricted by state law. In places like North Carolina and Louisiana, lawmakers have made it illegal for convicted sex offenders to use social media, including Facebook.
But now there are questions about whether those state laws restrict free speech and they’ve gone as far as the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule sometime this spring on a case involving a North Carolina sex offender named Lester Packingham. He was arrested for posting on Facebook after he got a traffic ticket thrown out.
The case is not specifically about Facebook. Rather it’s a First Amendment case about state law. And to date, organizations including the CATO Institute and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have written the court in support of sex offenders' rights to socially network and access a variety of websites.
It seems many of the justices are listening, with published reports indicating many are potentially leaning toward the opinion that the law violates free speech.
Rumenap, whose organization filed a brief supporting North Carolina, believes some good could come from the decision either way. “I’d like to see North Carolina lawmakers go back and tailor that law a little more to really focus on the worst of the worst sex offenders, to really focus on safeguarding sites that are primarily used by young people,” she said.
Circa asked Facebook for an on-camera interview, sending specific questions about its ban and how it's policed. The site told us it urges people to use its reporting tools, so it can investigate and take swift action.
As for other social media, Instagram has a similar policy and reporting tool to Facebook. Twitter and SnapChat do not have specific language related to sex offenders in their terms of service.
Roger, the registered offender who talked with Circa, hopes for a day when social media sites will give them a second chance. “When people understand the human side of this, when they understand the facts, that we’re not cartoon monsters. There is rehabilitation. There is hope. There is a chance to heal and reintegrate into society," he said.