Decision Extends First Amendment Protections for People on Parole, Recognizes Social Media as Essential to Free Speech

NEW YORK — Today the Eastern District of New York issued a decisive ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in Jones v. Stanford, blocking New York from enforcing a social media ban, known as e-STOP, against certain categories of individuals on supervised release for sex offenses who did not use the internet as part of their offenses. The Court held clearly that the state cannot banish people from social media just because of their status as sex offenders, and that any social media or internet restrictions must be tailored individually for those who used the internet to offend.

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 its creation, 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, read the news, or engage with politicians, now covers internet platforms that offer no realistic possibility for sexual offending like Twitter and LinkedIn.

The litigation also challenges the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s policy of banning people convicted of sex offenses from using the internet while on parole, however the decision did not apply to this separate policy and it remains in place. During the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic, DOCCS agreed to loosen these internet restrictions for the plaintiffs to ensure they could do things like access health care resources, order groceries and basic goods, and read the news.

The case was brought in March by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Rutgers Law School Constitutional Rights Clinic, and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.

In response to the ruling, attorneys representing the plaintiffs issued the following statements:

Daniel Lambright, staff attorney at the NYCLU: “With this ruling, people convicted of sex offenses who pose little risk to reoffend by using social media will no longer be banished from  one of the most important forms of social bonding. Social media has radically transformed society, and the court has sent a strong message that the state must craft narrowly tailored laws when dealing with the First Amendment right to use social media. The end of this draconian ban will restore the liberties of people on sex offender registries to better connect with the services, support, and opportunities needed for rehabilitation and success after re-entering their communities.”

Alexis Karteron, Director of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic: “As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clearer than ever, social media access is essential for basic activities like maintaining contact with loved ones and following the news. e-STOP eliminated this access for too many without justification, undermining rehabilitation and reentry into society. The district court’s decision affirms that constitutional rights, while not absolute, are not extinguished merely because of involvement in the criminal legal system.”

Karen Murtagh, Executive Director of PLSNY: “One of the major goals of New York’s criminal justice system is to help individuals who have served their time in prison reenter society and become law abiding, tax-paying citizens. We applaud today’s ruling in the Jones case as it not only upholds basic first amendment rights, but also recognizes that New York’s E-stop law poses significant and unnecessary hurdles to an individual’s ability to successfully reintegrate into society upon release from prison.”

You can find the decision and other materials on the case here.

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