Freedom of speech for sex offenders?

Supreme Court | Supreme Court considers state law barring convicts from social media
by Mary Reichard
Posted 3/06/17, 03:53 pm

In North Carolina, state law bars registered sex offenders from using social media that children could join, such as Facebook. The state law is aimed at preventing communications between sex offenders and minors.

Lester Packingham of Durham, N.C., claims the law violated his First Amendment rights and took his argument to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case at the end of February.

Packingham, a convicted sex offender, created a Facebook account using an alias. There is no evidence Packingham used the website to communicate with children.

In 2010, he posted praise for a simple, quick, cost-free encounter with a traffic court: “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 GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!”

A Durham police officer monitoring Facebook came across Packingham’s post and recognized his face. He investigated and found proof Packingham owned the account. 

Packingham was convicted of statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl when he was 21. He said the sex was consensual and he didn’t know the girl’s age. He received a suspended sentence, and the trial judge told him to stay away from the girl but made no other stipulations—other than adding him to North Carolina’s sex offender registry.

Now age 36, Packingham argues the law banning him from social media deprives him of his constitutional right to free speech.

The law does not operate in some sleepy First Amendment quarter,” his lawyer, David Goldberg, said. “It forbids speech on the very platforms on which Americans today are most likely to communicate, to organize for social change, and to petition their government.”

The lower court upheld the law, reasoning a sufficient state interest in “forestalling illicit lurking and contact” of potential young victims online.  

The lawyer for the state, Robert Montgomery, argued the media ban was not all-encompassing.

“This is a part of the internet, but it’s not the entire internet that is being taken away from these offenders,” Montgomery said. Offenders can still have blogs or podcasts, for example. During oral arguments, most of the justices had pointed questions about the North Carolina law. 

“Everybody uses Twitter,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “All 50 governors, all 100 senators, every member of the House has a Twitter account. So this has become a crucially important channel of political communication.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed: “The First Amendment includes not only the right to speak but the right to receive information.”

Many states require sex offenders to hand over their internet use information to officers monitoring them. But Indiana and Nebraska had laws similar to North Carolina’s that were struck down by lower courts.

Social media has replaced playgrounds as a starting point for predators to lure children, so protecting kids in virtual spaces is vital. But the majority of the justices seemed to lean toward either overturning North Carolina’s law or narrowing it. Packingham may be able to update his post of praise on social media very soon, but he probably won’t have much to say about how easy, quick, and inexpensive it was.

Listen to “Legal Docket” on the March 6 edition of The World and Everything in It.

Mary Reichard

Mary is co-host, legal affairs correspondent, and dialogue editor for WORLD Radio. She is also co-host of the Legal Docket podcast. Mary is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and St. Louis University School of Law. She resides with her husband near Springfield, Mo.

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