Supreme Court justices defend social media, even for sex offenders

Posted February 28, 2017

The eight justices heard an hour of oral arguments over Lester Packingham's appeal of his conviction for violating the state law in 2010 when he posted a message on Facebook expressing his surprise at a traffic citation being dismissed. In 2008, state lawmakers banned sex offenders from using social networking websites that minors frequent.

Packingham's case stems from the guilty plea he entered at age 21 for having consensual sex with a 13-year-old girl he says he was dating.

He got a suspended sentence of 10-12 months and his name was placed on a registry of sex offenders.

A police officer in Durham, North Carolina who was working to hunt down sex offenders online read the post.

Packingham had no further sex offenses after his conviction.

Furthermore, says Stanford law professor David Goldberg, who's representing Packingham at the Supreme Court, "Everyday Americans understand that social media - which includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram - are absolutely central to their daily life and how the First Amendment is exercised in America today".

The case reaches the Supreme Court after it was upheld by North Carolina's highest court in a divided ruling. Louisiana is the only other state with similar rules, although its law only blocks sex offenders convicted of crimes against children from such sites.

Yet North Carolina's lawyers argue that protecting children from online sexual predators is more important, and more hard, than ever.

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But they found it hard to defend North Carolina's law, passed in 2008 as a way to add "virtual" neighborhoods to the physical locations - such as schools and playgrounds - from which sex offenders are barred.

Goldberg said such rights were fundamental, "but they are different". Those are two important questions in a case now before the Supreme Court.

In response to a question from Justice Stephen Breyer about the basis for the state's decision to limit all access to such sites, Montgomery replied that there are "no enforceable less restrictive ways" to accomplish the state's goals. Ginsburg observed that states impose other restrictions-such as taking away the right to vote or to own guns-on the fundamental rights of convicted criminals. "It just keeps them off of certain web sites", said North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, according to the AP.

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

Only Justice Samuel Alito mounted much of a defense of the law, suggesting that it could be limited to core social networking sites rather than The New York Times or Betty Crocker.

"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 objective 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. The officer found six other registered sex offenders in the same session, Montgomery said.

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

But Packingham's lawyers say that the law is far too broad and punitive, especially given the importance today of the internet in communication, and breached their client's right to free speech.