Jus­tices hear sex of­fender’s so­cial me­dia case

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - MARK SHER­MAN

WASH­ING­TON — With a nod to the im­por­tance of so­cial me­dia in Amer­i­can life, the Supreme Court sig­naled Mon­day that it could strike down a North Carolina law that bars con­victed sex of­fend­ers from Face­book, Twitter and other pop­u­lar sites.

At least five jus­tices, a ma­jor­ity of the court, sug­gested dur­ing ar­gu­ments that they would rule in fa­vor of North Carolina res­i­dent Lester Pack­ing­ham Jr. His Face­book boast about beat­ing a traf­fic ticket led to his con­vic­tion of vi­o­lat­ing a 2008 law aimed at keep­ing sex of­fend­ers off In­ter­net sites chil­dren might use.

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. More than 1,000 peo­ple have been pros­e­cuted un­der the law, Pack­ing­ham said in his court fil­ing.

Jus­tice Sa­muel Al­ito, who has backed re­stric­tions on speech more often than his col­leagues, ap­peared to be more open to North Carolina’s ar­gu­ment.

But sev­eral jus­tices said the law was so broad that it could vi­o­late free-speech rights, in­clud­ing those of peo­ple con­victed of sex crimes.

So­cial me­dia sites such as Face­book and Twitter are so pop­u­lar that they “have be­come em­bed­ded in our cul­ture,” Jus­tice Elena Ka­gan said.

The 56-year-old Ka­gan, the youngest jus­tice and seem­ingly most con­ver­sant on the sub­ject, said the law could pre­vent peo­ple from look­ing at the Twitter feeds of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and other elected of­fi­cials.

Jus­tice An­thony Kennedy voiced his con­cerns with the law by reach­ing back to be­fore the dig­i­tal age to note that more com­mu­ni­ca­tion takes place on­line than in the tra­di­tional “pub­lic square,” where the court has been skep­ti­cal of lim­its on speech.

Deputy North Carolina At­tor­ney Gen­eral Robert Mont­gomery ac­knowl­edged that some dig­i­tal av­enues are cut off from peo­ple con­victed un­der the law, but he said al­ter­na­tives ex­ist.

“This is a part of the In­ter­net, but it’s not the en­tire In­ter­net that is be­ing taken away from th­ese of­fend­ers,” Mont­gomery said.

Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg was among those who ques­tioned whether a nar­rower law that specif­i­cally tried to pre­vent sex of­fend­ers from com­mu­ni­cat­ing with mi­nors through so­cial me­dia might with­stand court re­view.

A more con­strained law might be con­sti­tu­tional, lawyer David Gold­berg said on be­half of Pack­ing­ham, but North Carolina’s ver­sion goes too far.

“The law does not op­er­ate in some sleepy First Amend­ment quar­ter,” Gold­berg said. In­stead, 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.”

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-yearold and or­dered to reg­is­ter as a sex of­fender.

A de­ci­sion in Pack­ing­ham v. North Carolina, 15-1194, is ex­pected by late June.

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