US Supreme Court debates ban on sex offenders accessing social media

The US Supreme Court building. (file photo)

(AFP) The US Supreme Court on Monday took up a case involving a North Carolina law that bars registered sex offenders from accessing social media and raises a broader question: can one live without the likes of Facebook?

It goes back to a seemingly harmless event in April 2010, when a man named Lester Packingham learned that authorities had dropped court proceedings stemming from a traffic ticket he had been given.

The US Supreme Court building. (file photo)

Packingham called up his Facebook page and wrote how relieved he was. “No fine. No court cost, no nothing spent … Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks, JESUS!,” he wrote.

A police officer in Durham, North Carolina who was working to hunt down sex offenders online read the post.

Eight years earlier, at the age of 21, Packingham had been convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

He got a suspended sentence of 10-12 months and his name was placed on a registry of sex offenders. And under a much disputed law enacted in North Carolina in 2008, Packingham was barred for 30 years from using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all other social media.

So Packingham was convicted again, this time of the crime of using Facebook. Police who searched his home after the post was read found no evidence of any new sexual misbehavior toward minors.

He appealed, saying the North Carolina law violated his right to freedom of expression.

In his legal battle over the past six years, Packingham has won the support from associations that oppose restrictions on use of the internet and from libertarians.

In the other corner, Louisiana and 12 other states have backed North Carolina, saying it was important to block sexual predators from collecting information on potential victims.

At Monday’s Supreme Court hearing, several of the tribunal’s eight judges seemed to side with the Packingham’s argument that these days a person simply cannot live without social media, if even just to look for work and read the news.

“A person in this situation cannot go onto the president’s Twitter account to find out what the president is saying today?” asked Justice Elena Kagan, albeit without pronouncing Donald Trump’s name.

These days, she added, “all 50 governors, all 100 senators, every member of the House has a Twitter account.” Of social media, she said “this is the way people structure their civic community life.”

Her liberal colleague Sonia Sotomayor said the North Carolina law was based on “layer upon layer of speculation” and is being applied indiscriminately, not just to people who have been found guilty of enticing a child via Facebook.

It is pointless to ban social media, she said, because “the internet could be used for almost any crime” such as preparing a bank robbery.

Robert Montgomery, representing the state of North Carolina, defended the law and argued there were alternatives to using social media.

He said the law did not ban access to the entire internet, insisting that porn web sites, blogs, podcasts, news-oriented sites, online shopping and those for simply exchanging photos are not affected by the restrictions imposed by the North Carolina law.

The court is expected to render a decision in this case by the end of June.


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