Sex Offenders Take Social Media Ban to High Court

     (CN) — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether North Carolina can ban registered sex offenders from using social media websites and other sites that allow minors to have accounts.
     The North Carolina General Assembly enacted a law in 2008 that bans the use of “commercial social networking websites” by registered sex offenders.
     Lester Packingham had been convicted six years earlier of a sexual offense and was a registered sex offender under state law.
     In 2010, a Durham, N.C., police officer began investigating whether sex offenders in the state were using social media, and found a Facebook profile page belonging to Packingham, according to court records.
     In one post, which the cop found, Packingham celebrated the dismissal of a traffic ticket: “Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, No court costs, no nothing spent….Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!” (Emphasis in original.)
     Packingham was indicted later that year for violating N.C.G.S. 14-202.5, the law banning social media use for sex offenders, and a jury found him guilty in May 2012. The trial court gave Packingham a suspended sentence and he was placed on probation.
     He appealed, and in 2013 the North Carolina Court of Appeals vacated Packingham’s conviction for accessing a social networking website as a registered sex offender, finding that the law at issue is unconstitutional.
     The state appeals court found that the statute “is not narrowly tailored, is vague, and fails to target the ‘evil’ it is intended to rectify,” and that it “arbitrarily burdens all registered sex offenders by preventing a wide range of communication and expressive activity unrelated to achieving its purported goal.”
     A divided North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the appeals court a year ago, ruling 4-2 that N.C.G.S. 14-202.5 “is constitutional in all respects.”
     “[The law] is narrowly tailored to serve a substantial governmental interest, and leaves available ample alternative channels of communication. Defendant has failed to meet the high bar necessary to mount a successful facial challenge,” Justice Robert Edmunds Jr. wrote for the state’s high court.
     Packingham appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in a petition for writ of certiorari filed in March of this year.
     “The statute singles out a subclass of persons, who are subject to criminal punishment based on expressive, associational, and communicative activities at the heart of the First Amendment, without any requirement that their activity caused any harm or was intended to,” Packingham’s petition states.
     According to the petition, the North Carolina law bans registered sex offenders from accessing “a wide array of websites—including Facebook, YouTube, and nytimes.com—that enable communication, expression, and the exchange of information among their users, if the site is ‘know[n]’ to allow minors to have accounts.”
     The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether N.C.G.S. 14-202.5 is constitutional, both on its face and as applied to Packingham.
     Per its custom, the nation’s highest court did not comment on its decision to hear the case.

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