Sometimes legislative bills don't seem to be written in plain English, so it's always best to go straight to the bill's author to find out what's up.
But a bill authored by Republican State Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano seems remarkably straightforward: It prohibits registered sex offenders from "using the Internet to access pornographic material."
It would also establish a means for "a commercial social networking site or Internet service provider" to be provided with a list of said perverts, so such businesses can alert authorities if they're using those sites to prey on kids.
But what got Hair Balls was that first part -- about not allowing these pervs to look at any pornography, or as stated later in the bill, anything deemed "obscene." (The bill refers to the obscenity section of the penal code, which offers different definitions of obscenity, which include simulated sex.) Even though, as everyone knows, there is hardly any sex stuff on the Interweb, how would something like that even be enforced?
So Hair Balls called Shapiro, to see if she could elaborate. She was on the Senate floor as we talked, which might account for some of the ensuing strangeness.
Hair Balls: Does [this] mean that you do not want anyone convicted of a sex offense to look at sex by consenting adults online?
Shapiro: I have no idea... this is an agreed-to bill that came with the Attorney General, myself, and the online providers. It's model language that came out of [the American Legislative Exchange Council].
(OK, so it turns out Shapiro wasn't sure of all the particulars in the bill she attached her name to. But she explained to us that "The whole purpose of this is that we are seeing more and more young people on the Internet, and social networking of course is one of the major issues."
She then said that the bill would prohibit certain sex offenders from joining social networking sites...which it doesn't.)
Shapiro: We need to be able to have that list [the sex offender registry list] and make that list available to the social network providers to prevent these people from going online.
HB: So they can't even use Facebook or MySpace, then, to talk to other adults?
Shapiro: Oh yes they can. Absolutely.
HB: They can?
Shapiro: I'm sorry, what did you just ask me?
HB: Can they use a social networking --
Shapiro: No. If they are convicted, no.
HB: They can't even talk to an adult.
Shapiro: No, that's correct....Facebook is not one of them. These are social networks. This is like Friendster and MySpace. I don't know that...I don't remember about Facebook....Facebook is one of them, you're right, you're right....No, the answer is no they cannot....This would prohibit them, if they're on probation or they're on parole, this would prohibit them from using the Internet for purposes of communicating with minors.
HB: But it also prohibits them from looking at anything that can be deemed obscene, which includes certain movies, certain art...
Shapiro: Are those things on MySpace or are they on Facebook? I don't think they are. They can use the Internet -- they just can't communicate with minors....They can look at anything they want, as long as it has nothing to do with the children.
Um, actually, the bill says they couldn't. So ultimately, Hair Balls wound up a lot more confused than before we even made the call. But the important thing is this: as long as well-informed lawmakers are out there passing sensible legislation that they actually take the time to read (if not write), we should have absolutely no fear for the safety of our children. Or something.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.