- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The North Carolina Supreme Court has upheld a state law prohibiting registered sex offenders from using Facebook and other social networking sites that minors can join.

The court’s opinion Friday reversed a lower court’s finding that the 2008 law was unconstitutional. The challenge was mounted by a registered sex offender who was convicted of an additional offense after Durham police found his Facebook page.

North Carolina’s Court of Appeals had sided with the defendant in 2013, finding that the law infringed on free speech rights by preventing a wide range of communication. The law remained in place pending the Supreme Court’s review.

At least eight states have enacted laws restricting sex offenders’ use of the Internet in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though some laws have been successfully challenged in court.

North Carolina’s law bans registered sex offenders from accessing social networking sites “where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.” Facebook requires people to be at least 13 to sign up.

The defendant’s attorney had argued the law was too broad and could prohibit routine Internet activity, such as using Google.

The state’s high court disagreed, saying lawmakers had established specific criteria to make certain sites off-limits.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Edmunds stated “the General Assembly has carefully tailored the statute in such a way as to prohibit registered sex offenders from accessing only those Web sites that allow them the opportunity to gather information” about minors.

For example, the opinion said the defendant could join The Paula Deen Network site, where people swap recipes, because it requires users to be at least 18.

Edmunds wrote that the law is meant to limit conduct and that it only incidentally affects speech.

“The justification of the statute - protecting minors from registered sex offenders - is unrelated to any speech on a regulated site,” he wrote.

Emails and text messages aren’t restricted by the law, the opinion states.

“Accordingly, the regulation leaves open ample channels of communication that registered sex offenders may freely access,” Edmunds wrote.

But two justices dissented, saying the law is unconstitutional and places more than an incidental burden on speech.

“This statute completely bars registered sex offenders from communicating with others through many widely utilized commercial networking sites,” Justice Robin Hudson wrote in the dissent.

Hudson also said that the law may prohibit sex offenders from visiting news sites or retailers such as Amazon.

Nathan Wessler, a New York-based attorney for the ACLU who specializes in speech and technology issues, argued that the law is overly broad in restricting use of forums that have become “the new town square.”

“It’s going to result in an impediment to people reintegrating in society after serving their time,” he said.

The defendant, Lester Gerard Packingham, was convicted in 2002 of taking indecent liberties with a child in Carbarrus County near Charlotte. For his 2012 conviction related to the Facebook page, he received a suspended sentence and probation.

A lawyer for Packingham, Glenn Gerding, didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on Friday.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper issued a statement applauding the high court’s ruling.

“Our laws bar convicted sex offenders from living near schools and working with young people in real life, and it’s just as important to protect kids in the online world,” he said.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide