Can states completely bar sex offenders from social media sites like Facebook? That question goes before the Supreme Court on Monday in an important case that weighs the protection of children versus the Constitutional rights of free speech and association.
The case turns on Lester Packingham, a North Carolina man who was convicted of statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl when he was 21. Eight years later, he was charged again when a police officer saw Packingham post a message on Facebook (FB) praising Jesus after he avoided a fine for a traffic ticket.
For the new charge, police pointed to a state law that forbids registered sex offenders from going on social media sites that can be accessed by minors. Even though police found no evidence he had used Facebook to meet minors, a court convicted Packingham and gave him a suspended sentence.
Now, Packingham is asking the Supreme Court to strike down the North Carolina law, saying it violates his First Amendment rights by cutting him off from an important source of news and information. In his appeal, he points to the example of President Barack Obama conducting a town hall on Twitter (TWTR) to argue social media sites are an essential part of modern democracy, and that it’s not legal to ban sex offenders from them entirely.
Packingham also claims the state law’s definition of “social media” is too broad and too vague, and that it could even ban people from access to websites like “bettycrocker.com” because they let visitors interact with one another. He argues the state could protect children online without harming free speech, such as by charging sex offenders who access websites for “nefarious purposes.”
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North Carolina, meanwhile, counters its law is necessary because social media is a prime forum for child molesters to seek out and groom victims. The state argues it needs to use the broad ban because other approaches would be less effective.
A number of organizations, including the digital activist group Electronic Frontier Foundation and the right-leaning Cato Institute, have filed briefs in support of Packingham’s position. Meanwhile, Louisiana and 11 other states, as well as victims’ advocacy groups have filed to support North Carolina.
The Packingham case is important because a decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the law would affect other states, which have passed similar laws to restrict the use of social media by sex offenders.
While it’s impossible to know for sure how the top court will rule, the Justices in other cases have considered social media to be a forum for Americans to exercise free speech rights. In 2015, for example, the court overturned the conviction of a man who had made a series of rants on Facebook, arguing the rants did not amount to true criminal threats. In the Packingham case, it’s likely at least some of the Justices will consider an outright ban on access to social media to be overly broad.
The Supreme Court, which still has only eight Justices, hears arguments in the Packingham case this morning. Its ruling will likely come in May or June.