Can Sex Offenders Use Facebook and other Social Media?

The United States Supreme Court has handed down a decision regarding the constitutionality of a North Carolina sex offender registry law. The Court ruled that the law violates the First Amendment of the Constitution because it “impermissibly restricts lawful speech” and is not sufficiently tailored to meet its end.

The law in question is N.C. Gen. Stat § 14-202.5 under North Carolina’s sex offender registration program which states that a sex offender may not access commercial social networking Web sites that minors also frequent. The law was enacted without issue until its enforcement in April of 2010. In that situation, a law enforcement officer was searching for registered sex offenders on social networking sites and discovered a Facebook profile belonging to Lester Packingham, a registered sex offender. Packingham was subsequently indicted for violating Section 14-202.5.

Packingham was convicted under the statute but the case continued its way through the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court. In October of 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Packingham’s petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court agreeing to answer whether the law was permissible under the First Amendment both as applied to Packingham’s situation and in general. The case was presented in February of 2017 and the decision was made later in June. The Supreme Court with Justice Kennedy as its spokesperson noted that a key part of the First Amendment is its guarantee that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen. Kennedy said that the internet, social media in particular are examples of such places. While the Supreme Court recognized that the goal of protecting children from sexual abuse is obviously a very important one, it noted that the North Carolina law was not specific enough to achieve this goal without also violating First Amendment rights.

The Court said that it was fair to assume the law prohibited sex offenders from accessing sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. It also assumed that the First Amendment allows a state to create specific, narrowly-tailored laws that prohibit a sex offender from engaging in behavior that typically precedes a sexual crime like messaging with a child online. However, the law created by North Carolina was too broad in that it barred offenders access to main sources of information via social media. The Supreme Court stated that even convicted sex offenders should be allowed to access the internet and its world of ideas, especially if they are trying to better themselves and engage in a more rewarding life. Justice Alito, however, wanted it to be clear that states are allowed to pass laws that restrict ‘dangerous sexual predators’ from internet sites that are designed for children.

As the internet continues to expand and evolve, so must the laws that regulate it. The reversal of this North Carolina law is just one example of states struggling to create legislation to effectively protect internet users.

Contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today

If you have been charged with violating something related to the sex offender registry, contact our experienced attorneys today and let us help you work through this matter. We will take an aggressive approach on your behalf and be the advocate you need during this difficult time. With locations in Charlotte, Lake Norman and Monroe it has never been easier to get access to an experienced legal advocate. Call us today at 704.370.2828 for your free criminal defense consultation.