WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court appeared likely Monday to strike down a North Carolina law that prohibits sex offenders from using Facebook and other social networking sites.
At least five justices suggested during argument that they would rule for North Carolina resident Lester Packingham Jr. He was convicted of violating a 2008 law aimed at keeping sex offenders off internet sites children might use. Packingham used Facebook to boast about beating a traffic ticket.
The state’s lawyer said the law deals with the virtual world in the same way that states keep sex offenders out of playgrounds and other places children visit.
But several justices said the law was so broad that it could violate free-speech rights, even of people convicted of sex crimes.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are so popular that they “have become embedded in our culture,” Justice Elena Kagan said.
Deputy North Carolina Attorney General Robert Montgomery said alternatives exist. “These sites are part of the internet, but they’re not the entire internet,” Montgomery said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was among those who wondered if a narrower law that specifically tried to prevent sex offenders from communicating with minors through social media might withstand court review.
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, 36, 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. He was 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, Montgomery said.
“No fine. No Court costs. No nothing. Praise be to God. Wow. Thanks, Jesus,” Packingham wrote the post that led to his conviction and suspended prison sentence.
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