Published: Tue, February 28, 2017
USA | By Angel Wallace

United States justices skeptical of sex offender social media ban

United States justices skeptical of sex offender social media ban

U.S. Supreme Court justices cast doubt on a North Carolina law that bars registered sex offenders from using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Packingham landed in hot water with state authorities again after he took to Facebook to celebrate the dismissal of a traffic ticket.

Through their questions and statements, justices repeatedly voiced skepticism about the 2008 law now being challenged by Durham, North Carolina, resident and convicted sex offender Lester G. Packingham Jr.

North Carolina officials say the law - which also bars sex offenders from sites like Snapchat and Instagram which can be accessed by children under the age of 18 - is meant to stop predators from seeking out new victims. He was given a suspended sentence, placed on two years' probation and required to register as a sex offender.

Packingham was originally convicted of indecent liberties with a minor in 2002 when he was 21.

"Nearly 7 in 10 American adults regularly use at least one internet social networking service", the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a brief, adding that "Facebook alone has more than 1.79 billion monthly active users". And responding to a hypothetical about whether states could require sex offenders to agree to have their social media monitored for communications with minors, Kagan noted that it is "not unheard of in First Amendment law" to have prophylactic rules when - as here - North Carolina argues that it lacks the resources to engage in such monitoring.

An intermediate state appellate court overturned his conviction, but the state supreme court reversed that ruling and reinstated his conviction.

North Carolina received friend-of-the-court briefs in support from 13 other states as well as state and municipal government associations and groups whose mission is to stop child predators. "Thanks, Jesus", Packingham wrote in the post that led to his conviction and suspended prison sentence.

Lawyers for Packingham say the ban extends beyond social media and restricts sex offenders from other online activities that do not involve interactions with children.

Justice Elena Kagan asked him about the rise of social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and their role in political discourse. "In 2008, North Carolina made a decision to prohibit sex offenders from being at virtual places where children congregate online-specifically, commercial social networking websites".

Goldberg said such rights were fundamental, "but they are different". Someone subject to this law literally can't know what he can't do or say; the police themselves aren't sure! "It just keeps them off of certain web sites".

Thirteen states - including South Carolina, Texas and Pennsylvania - have joined in a brief supporting North Carolina. The law doesn't apply only to people who used the Internet to commit a sexual offense, she stressed, but instead applies to everyone.

Montgomery provided no other case.

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. He argues the state could protect children online without harming free speech, such as by charging sex offenders who access websites for "nefarious purposes".

The state said it's the virtual equivalent of keeping child predators out of playgrounds, parks and schools.

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