Is it Unconstitutional To Bar Sex Offenders From Social Media?

28 February, 2017, 00:27 | Author: Michele Stevens
  • Supreme Court to hear challenge to social media ban for sex offenders

Goldberg complained that the law bans "vast swaths of core First Amendment activity" that have nothing to do with the government's professed goal of preventing sex offenders from using social media sites to gather information that they can then use to target minors for sexual abuse.

A 21-year-old college student at the time, Packingham was indicted in Cabarrus County on two counts of statutory rape of a 13-year-old.

"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". "Thanks JESUS!" he wrote. He was given a suspended sentence, placed on two years' probation and required to register as a sex offender.

Packingham was off probation but still on the sex offender registry when he took to Facebook in April 2010 under an assumed name to celebrate the dismissal of a traffic ticket.

Robert Montgomery, representing the state of North Carolina, defended the law and argued there were alternatives to using social media.

An intermediate state appellate court overturned his conviction, but the state supreme court reversed the ruling and reinstated it. The state court noted that Packingham could still use other websites, and that the law furthered a governmental interest of protecting 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.

"Typically, there's not the transparent amount of information or the anonymity that comes with the social networking website in which you can click on a link and go find out information about someone that you don't know", he said. Someone subject to this law literally can't know what he can't do or say; the police themselves aren't sure!

There's been no evidence to suggest that Packingham used social media to contact any minors, and says Goldberg to the AP, "There's never been any suggestion that he was up to anything but exercising his freedom of speech".

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If this law is struck down, it would affect 20,000 sex offenders now registered in North Carolina. Nine other states require offenders to disclose their online usernames and profiles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Update: Per the Associated Press, five of the eight sitting justices signaled during oral arguments Monday that they were leaning toward striking down the North Carolina law, with Justice Ginsberg saying, "The law does not operate in some sleepy First Amendment quarter".

In a lively argument on Monday that touched on school websites, chat rooms, and President Donald Trump's Twitter account, the U.S. Supreme Court took up a challenge to a North Carolina law that bars convicted sex offenders from accessing social networking sites that allow minors to create accounts. "It just keeps them off of certain web sites".

Nationwide, an estimated 850,000 people are on sex offender registries. Meanwhile, Louisiana and 11 other states, as well as victims' advocacy groups have filed to support North Carolina.

Montgomery provided no other case.

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.

Two similar statutes - in IN and Nebraska - were struck down by the lower federal courts.

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.


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