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Sex offenders battle state courts for Facebook accounts

Several registered sex offenders joined by civil liberties groups are stepping forward to say it's their constitutional right to use social networks.

Tens of thousands of registered sex offenders have been purged from social networks like Facebook and MySpace over the past several years -- banned by state laws prohibiting them from using chat rooms, social networks, or instant messaging.

However, some of these registered sex offenders are now trying to turn the tables in state courts. Legal battles over the right to use social networks have ensued across the U.S., from Indiana to Nebraska to Louisiana, according to the Associated Press.

The position of the registered sex offenders and civil liberties groups is that the state bans violate free speech and the individual right to join in online discussions, according to the Associated Press. Civil liberties advocates argue that the Internet and social networking is now so widespread that using it has become necessary for free speech.

Those who back the state bans say that the restrictions are needed in order to protect children and young adults from online predators.

"It's going to be really, really hard, I think, to write something that will achieve the state's purpose in protecting children online but not be restrictive enough to be unconstitutional," Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs at the Virginia-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told the Associated Press.

In February, a federal judge in Louisiana threw out the law barring sex offenders from using social networks because it included too many restrictions. But local state authorities opposed the judge's decision.

"The Internet is the virtual playground where sex offenders are trying to strike and prey on our kids," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement. "We must have the tools to crack down on monsters that are preying on our kids."

Just yesterday, Jindal signed new legislation that is less restrictive than the original law but still maintains that "certain" registered sex offenders cannot use social networks, according to Louisiana's NBC 33 News.

Recently Nebraska courts decided to allow registered sex offenders to join social networks and a similar case in Indiana is scheduled for a court hearing this week, according to the Associated Press.

In the Indiana case, the plaintiff was convicted on two counts of child exploitation in 2000 and was done serving his time by 2003, according to the Associated Press. His lawyers argue that the state law prohibits him from commenting on local news stories and communicating with his family that lives outside of Indiana because he needs a Facebook account to do so. He also isn't allowed to have a LinkedIn profile.

"To broadly prohibit such a large group of persons from ever using these modern forms of communication is just something the First Amendment cannot tolerate," legal director of Indiana's ACLU chapter Ken Falk told the Associated Press.

However, the assistant U.S. attorney in Indianapolis who prosecutes child sex crimes, Steve DeBrota, disagrees, according to the Associated Press. "It's hard to come up with an example of a sexual predator who doesn't use some form of social networking anymore," he said.

CNET contacted Facebook for comment. We'll update the story when we get more information.