Last month the United States Supreme Court, by unanimous decision, declared that the State of North Carolina cannot categorically prohibit convicted sex offenders from using social media websites, such as facebook, Twitter and countless others. In doing so, the court recognized that these cyberspace forums 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...they allow a person with an Internet connection to become a town crier with a voice that resonates further than it would from any soapbox.
The full court resoundingly rejected - and even ridiculed - the State's argument that these convicted sex offenders could use access to the Internet to victimize more innocent children. But in doing so, the full courts recognized that limited restrictions that serve the purpose of prohibiting contact with minors could be constitutional as the state has a legitimate purpose in protecting the innocent, especially children.
However, just as the courts has repeatedly recognized in the past, any limitations the state imposes on "free speech" must be limited only to the extent necessary to accomplish that objective as the long standing rule is that the government "may not suppress lawful speech as a means to suppress unlawful speech" Ashcroft v Free Speech Coalition, 535 U.S. 234 (2002)
Myself, I don't exactly have a lot of sympathy towards perverts who prey on women and children. But then again, I have an equal measure of contempt towards those who are not merely satisfied with throwing stones at all convicted prisoners and find perverse pleasure in seeing us suffer.
But I do now wonder how this recent ruling in Packinghem v North Carolina, 382 U.S. (2017) will impact those incarcerated in prisons across the country, as most prison systems - especially states like Florida that are controlled by republicans - do significantly restrict our exercise of free speech. There's no doubt in my mind that if those who make the rules had it their way, prisoners would be prohibited from any and all communication with the outside world. By creating an "iron curtain" between prisoners and the free world, prison administrators would be able to run their prisons as they please.
Here in Florida prisoners are categorically prohibited from any access to the Internet, although there are rumors that within the near future we will be able to start sending and receiving emails and photos - but only because the prison system stands to make millions of dollars by charging us for each email or photo send o received.
However, the bigger issue is that increasingly, even the very limited access prisoners have to print forms of media, such as local newspapers, are no longer available. Newspapers and magazines now are transitioning to only digital access and without access to the Internet it is becoming harder and harder for prisoners to have meaningful access to forms of material that have long been recognized as protected from prison censorship.
Like many other states, under the pretense of protecting the public from prisoners who might take advantage of people, Florida prohibits all prisoners from any form of "soliciting" penpals. This rule was adopted almost 20 years ago when the Internet was still relatively new and prisoners began placing ads seeking penpals on various forms of social sites.
Florida also strictly prohibits prisoners from having Facebook pages set up, or any other form of social media, for the same reason - that if we were allowed to do so, some prisoners could use such social networking sites to scam money (or whatever) from people.
Bottom line, Florida, and other states, have long been determined to prohibit prisoners from interacting with the public. For many years now I have been posting my "blogs" and maintain my website (www.southerninjustice.net) which I actually do not maintain as these are actually controlled by a friend who allows me to write what i will.
But as long as I don't solicit penpals to write to me, or ask anyone for money, I am allowed to run my mouth as even the prison system recognizes that they cannot silence prisoners beyond what is a legitimate and limited prohibition.
But are these rules now called into question by this unanimous Supreme Court decision? If a convicted sex offender is constitutionally entitled to put up a Facebook page so that he or she can interact with others in what has become modern days forum for social interaction, then why shouldn't all prisoners not have the same right? As the Supreme Court recognized in this Packingham case, a categorical rule prohibiting all access goes too far - and so maybe the prison system has a legitimate interest in limited restrictions tailored to actual instances of abuse - for example, the Florida prison system prohibits those convicted of sex crimes against children from having social visits with children and so a similar limitation could be adopted that would prohibit sex offenders from interactions with minor children via Internet access.
Often we hear politicians talk about the objective of rehabilitating prisoners while modern day prisons are far more focused on punishing, the inevitable fact is that the overwhelming majority of prisoners will one day re-enter society, and for that reason promoting social interaction between prisoners and the real world seems a legitimate purpose, as allowing such will substantially decrease the rate of recidivism.
Even those such as myself who are on death row have a substantial interest in being allowed to interact with others online, such as by way of Facebook. One of my favorite quotes from the Supreme Court came in a prisoners rights case long ago..."prison walls do not form an iron curtain and that prisoners are constitutionally entitled to exercise their first amendment rights.
I'm already now looking forward to the challenges that will undoubtedly follow in the wake if last months US Supreme Court's decision and perhaps in the not too distant future I will be able to put up my very own Facebook page so that I can socially interact with those who "like" me, and go online to various websites so that I can read articles on news sites and online magazines.
They say times are changing and eventually even the prison system is forced to join the real world. Just a few years ago we were not allowed MP3 players or even color TV. So, there's hope - and it would be really cool to have my own Facebook page! :)