Justices skeptical about North Carolina law banning sex offenders from social media

President Trump's use of Twitter to make news was but one of many examples cited by the Supreme Court on Monday for reasoning that even sex offenders should not be barred from social networking websites. No fine, no court costs, no nothing spent ...

Local police saw a Facebook post he wrote, which read "Praise be to GOD. WOW!"

Packingham registered as a sex offender; seven years later he signed up for Facebook while living in Durham to celebrate having a traffic ticket dismissed, according to the News & Observer in Raleigh.

Thirteen states defended the North Carolina law in legal papers as a weapon against the illicit use of social networking sites, which they said are used in one-third of Internet-related sex crimes resulting in arrest.

Packingham was prosecuted, convicted of a felony, and received a suspended sentence despite his lawyers' argument that the 2008 law infringes upon his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Packingham was originally convicted of indecent liberties with a minor in 2002 when he was 21. He served 10 months in prison.

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed that ruling, reinstating Packingham's conviction and upholding the law.

Her liberal colleague Sonia Sotomayor said the North Carolina law was based on "layer upon layer of speculation" and is being applied indiscriminately, not just to people who have been found guilty of enticing a child via Facebook. "In 2008, North Carolina chose to prohibit sex offenders from being at virtual places where children congregate online-specifically, commercial social networking websites".

But the tide seemed to turn when Robert Montgomery, the senior deputy attorney general representing North Carolina, took the lectern.

Goldberg said such rights were fundamental, "but they are different".

Hearing arguments in Washington, a majority of the justices indicated they read the law as going too far in restricting First Amendment rights and cutting off services that have become nearly indispensable to millions of Americans. He claimed he didn't know her age.

Can states completely bar sex offenders from social media sites like Facebook?

"The practical effect [of North Carolina's law] is to bar registered sex offenders not merely from the school, the playground, and even the town square, but from entire regions of the country where their fellow citizens are gathered for the goal of information exchange about any and all subjects of human inquiry", says a friend-of-the-court brief filed on Packingham's side by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"There's nothing that a sex offender can't say on the internet".

"They can go on the school website", Montgomery said.

"The law does not operate in some sleepy First Amendment quarter", Goldberg said, adding that it "forbids speech on the very platforms on which Americans today are most likely to communicate, to organize for social change, and to petition their government". Louisiana amended its statute to comply with the court decision.

Supporters of such laws say they aren't violating sex offenders' free speech, merely the place and manner of their speech, but the trouble arises in laws that are written so broadly as to encompass the entire internet - and perhaps in 2008 it was not clear that virtually every website was going to have a social media component within a few years.

The state contends its social media ban was adopted to stop sexual predators from "taking what is often the critical first step in the sexual assault of a child", meaning gathering information about potential young targets.

  • Annette Adams