Miss America Lends Name, Support To Internet Sex Crimes Bill

Monday, March 19th 2007, 7:44 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- When she was just 13, Lauren Nelson and a group of her friends were exploring an Internet chat room when they were contacted by an older man who asked them for personal information and later sent photographs of himself.

As Miss America, Nelson -- a native of Lawton -- recalls that experience as she takes her campaign to protect children online to a national audience.

On Monday, Nelson, a 20-year-old music theater major at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, was at the state Capitol to speak on behalf of legislation that would bar registered sex offenders from communicating with children over the Internet.

"You wouldn't let your child sit in a room with a bunch of sex offenders," Nelson said. Yet, that is what can happen when parents allow their children unsupervised access to Internet sites and chat rooms, where one in five children are approached online, she said.

Nelson, a former Miss Oklahoma who was crowned Miss America in Las Vegas on Jan. 29, has voiced concern about Internet safety during appearances in Washington and 11 states during the first seven weeks of her reign.

"Internet safety is the public service void of the 21st century," Nelson said. "The best way to police the Internet is on our side of the keyboard."

The measure, approved without opposition last month in the Oklahoma House, would authorize state judges to prohibit registered sex offenders from using Internet social networking Web sites where they could communicate with anyone under 18.

Courts also would be authorized to require offenders to register their e-mail addresses and instant message, chat or other Internet names. The bill is now pending in the state Senate.

The bill's author, Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, said a survey conducted by an Oklahoma City television station found that 40 registered sex offenders in Oklahoma and Cleveland counties were communicating with children over the MySpace Web site.

Wesselhoft said his bill would extend a state law that prohibits sex offenders from having physical contact with children to include contact over the Internet.

"This is one more tool law enforcement has to complete the job," said Sen. Jonathan Nichols, R-Norman, the bill's Senate author.

Before being named Miss America, Nelson said she spoke to students in 85 Oklahoma schools about the dangers of Internet sex predators. She said she was working with the FBI to develop Internet sting operations when she was crowned Miss America.

Nelson said her message was driven home last month when a federal grand jury indicted an Oklahoma minister for using the Internet to arrange a sexual encounter with a person he believed to be a 13-year-old girl.

"That just fuels my fire," Nelson said. "It could be anybody across the street committing these crimes."

Nelson is the 80th woman to hold the Miss America title and the second-straight crown-holder from Oklahoma. Miss America 2006 was Jennifer Berry of Tulsa, whose national campaign was underage drinking and driving.