NC Supreme Court: Social media ban for sex offenders remains for now

ablythe@newsobserver.comAugust 30, 2013 

— A state law barring registered sex offenders in North Carolina from using social media websites where children are members will remain in effect while the state attorney general drafts an appeal of a recent Court of Appeals decision.

On Friday, the state Supreme Court issued a stay that keeps in place a 2008 law that the appeals court described as “too broad” and so “vague” that it fails to target the “evil” it was designed to rectify.

Attorney General Roy Cooper petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay that keeps the law in place until the Aug. 20 appeals court decision can be reviewed by the state high court justices.

“Instead of lurking around playgrounds, today’s child predators go online where they can groom multiple victims at once,” Cooper said in a prepared statement. “Along with tough laws, strong law enforcement, and education efforts, keeping known sex abusers off of social networking sites helps protect children.”

Lester Gerard Packingham Jr., 32, a registered sex offender in North Carolina, is behind the challenge of the 2008 law. He argued that the restriction, part of a legislative package that Cooper advocated for, was a violation of his rights to “free speech, expression, association, assembly and the press under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Packingham was convicted in 2002 of taking indecent liberties with a child.

In 2010, Durham police began investigating MySpace and Facebook profiles to enforce the law. Investigators said they found a picture of Packingham at Facebook and determined he created the profile page, according to court documents. Packingham was convicted in May 2012 and received a suspended sentence and probation.

The 2008 legislative package came about at a time that state attorneys general across the country were raising concerns about such social media sites as Facebook and MySpace, hoping to protect users from sexual predators using the networks.

The North Carolina law makes it illegal for a registered sex offender to access a website where he or she knows minors have personal web pages.

Glenn Gerding, the Chapel Hill attorney who represented Packingham, argued that the law as written could make it difficult for a registered offender to engage in routine Internet activity, such as a Google search.

The law defines a “commercial social networking website” as one that derives revenue from membership fees or advertising, facilitates social introductions, and allows users to create pages to post information.

Though the law makes exceptions for websites that provide narrow services such as email, the three-judge appeals court panel said, it could prohibit a registered sex offender from accessing Google, Amazon or even a cooking TV channel website because the sites provide secondary social networking forums.

Gerding said the ambiguousness of the law has made it difficult for him to advise sex offender clients who are trying to follow it.

North Carolina’s sex offender laws require people convicted since 1996 of sexually violent offenses and specific crimes against children to register with the sheriffs in the counties where they live. Those on the registry may not live close to schools or daycares. They are barred from working with minors and visiting certain places where children are likely to be present.

One of Gerding’s clients has not been able to attend his child’s T-ball games because of the restrictions. The client’s wife had planned to go to the game and use Skype so her husband could watch without being on the premises, but a sheriff told him that would violate the 2008 law.

“Nobody knows what sites this law covers,” Gerding said Friday. “And because nobody knows, I don’t know what to tell my clients.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service