• Supreme Court strikes down NC sex offender social media ban

    By: MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press , Elsa Gillis


    WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina law Monday that bars convicted sex offenders from Facebook, Twitter and other popular sites.

    The justices ruled unanimously in favor of North Carolina resident Lester Packingham Jr. His Facebook boast about beating a traffic ticket led to his conviction for violating a 2008 law aimed at keeping sex offenders off internet sites children might use.

    The court rejected the state's argument that the law deals with the virtual world in the same way that states keep sex offenders out of playgrounds and other places children visit.

    Charlotte attorney Brad Smith said this comes down to the First Amendment.

    “First Amendment protects our ability to interact with other people and to use different mediums to interact with other people," Smith said.

    Smith said the Supreme Court found the law too broad.

    "If North Carolina had more closely tailored their law, saying it is against the law for a sex offender to use social media to communicate for the purpose of facilitating sex or some sort of nefarious activity, that would be fine," Smith said.

    Janet Harmon, with the child advocacy center Pat's Place, said the ruling doesn't change what parents need to do to protect their kids.

    “We need to let them know what we expect of them,” Harmon said.

    "In sum, to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.

    Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas cautioned that Kennedy's "loose rhetoric" could prevent states from taking any measures to restrict convicted sex offenders on the internet. "This language is bound to be interpreted by some to mean that the states are largely powerless to restrict even the most dangerous sexual predators from visiting any internet sires, including for example internet dating sites," Alito wrote for the three justices.

    Louisiana is the only other state with a law similar to North Carolina's, although the Louisiana law applies only to people convicted of sex crimes with children, according to a legal brief the state filed with the Supreme Court. But many states have laws that require sex offenders to provide information about their internet use to authorities. Separately, many states limit internet use as a condition of parole or probation.

    Packingham originally pleaded guilty in 2002 to taking indecent liberties with a child. He had been indicted for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old and ordered to register as a sex offender.

    In 2010, a Durham police officer was using his own Facebook account to look for people who shouldn't be on the site. He came across a post from Packingham, who used an alias but also included a photo of himself and linked to an account used by his father and namesake. The officer found six other registered sex offenders in the same session, a lawyer for North Carolina told the justices when the case was argued in February.

    "No fine. No Court costs. No nothing. Praise be to God. Wow. Thanks, Jesus," Packingham wrote in the post that led to his conviction and suspended prison sentence.

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