Local News

Court strikes down law banning sex offenders from social media

Posted August 20, 2013
Updated August 21, 2013

Lester Gerard Packingham Jr.

— A 2008 law making it a felony for registered sex offenders to use social media websites in North Carolina was struck down Tuesday after a challenge by a Durham man.

Lester Gerard Packingham Jr., 32, a registered sex offender, appealed to the state after being convicted in May 2012 of accessing a commercial social networking website.

Packingham claimed that North Carolina General Statute 14-202.5 violated his rights to "free speech, expression, association, assembly and the press under the First and Fourteenth Amendments."

He also alleged that the law was vague and not narrowly tailored to achieve a legitimate government interest.

In its decision issued Tuesday morning, the North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed with Packingham and struck down the law based on its constitutionality.

The law "is not narrowly tailored, is vague, and fails to target the 'evil' it is intended to rectify," the three-judge appellate panel said in its 21-page opinion. "Instead, it arbitrarily burdens all registered sex offenders by preventing a wide range of communication and expressive activity unrelated to achieving its purported goal."

According to the court, the law's application is too broad because it treats all sex offenders the same regardless of the offense committed, the victim's age or whether a computer was used to facilitate or commit the offense.

The court also found that the law fails to give people fair notice of what is prohibited and doesn't specify the difference between mainstream social media sites such as Facebook, where children may be members, from other sites that include a social media arm, such as Google or Amazon.

"The statute prohibits a registered sex offender whose conviction is unrelated to sexual activity involving a minor from accessing a multitude of websites that, in all likelihood, are not frequented by minors," it said in its opinion.

Passed in 2008 as part of the "Protect Children from Sexual Predators" act, the law was backed by Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has been an outspoken voice against predators who find victims on the Internet.

Cooper said Tuesday that the law was written broadly to keep up with changing technology and that he plans to petition the North Carolina Supreme Court to review the appeals court's ruling.

"Technology speeds forward very quickly, and different types of websites and ways to communicate continue to pop up on the Internet," Cooper said.

Packingham was convicted in 2002 for taking indecent liberties with a child, and he was one of 11 people indicted in Durham County in November 2010 for accessing social media sites.

His attorney, Glenn Gerding, welcomed Tuesday's ruling, saying it recognized that the First Amendment applies to his client and others in similar situations.

"Mr. Packingham was not charged with any other charges. There were no allegations that he had done anything improper in this case or done anything except use Facebook," Gerding said. "So, I think, partly, it was a matter of principle but also simply a matter of the state really not having a case against him."

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  • gordonbabe Aug 21, 3:32 p.m.

    So who decides who we'll take risks with? If you used the social media in the past to further your felonious acts; then you give up the right to use social media later.

  • telecaster Aug 21, 2:51 p.m.

    Most people assume all sex offenders prey on children. Unfortunately this is not how the law works. Get arrested for streaking in college - same label as perusing children. These laws need to be fixed to track the true dangerous offenders.

  • DontVote4LiarsCheatsOrThieves Aug 21, 1:56 p.m.

    lwe - "They gave up those rights when they were convicted."

    According to the law, once their sentence is over, rights are restored, except in the case of felonies.

  • DontVote4LiarsCheatsOrThieves Aug 21, 1:53 p.m.

    paydapiper - "Yet this class of people are punished for the rest of their lives."

    These people are attracted to children. That can't be changed. The State of California tried for about a decade to therapy them out of this aberration, and finally admitted it didn't work.

    Because these people prey on CHILDREN, society should be forever cautious of them until they take their last breath and every measure available to protect CHILDREN from them should be taken.

    Unfortunately, this law wasn't it. The only way I can think of to enforce it would be after-the-fact (once they've contacted a child) which is lame indeed because the web is too large to police effectively anyway.

  • rodtempleusa Aug 21, 1:51 p.m.

    Justis (August 21, 2013 8:24 a.m.):

    It is true that it is against Facebook's Terms of Service for a person who is listed on a big government Sex Offender Registry to use their services. But who cares?

    Facebook has no legitimate reason to single out people who are listed on the Sex Offender Registries as people who cannot use their services. If they restricted anyone convicted of any crime from using their services, then they might have a bit of credibility. But they don't, so they don't. So who cares what they want? They are an un-American company who we should all ask to relocate to China or somewhere else they fit in better.

    Further, since Facebook actively restrict some U.S. citizens from using their services, no U.S. government should have any presence on Facebook. That should be illegal. U.S. governments should not even do business with Facebook. There are plenty of other services that include all U.S. citizens.

  • DontVote4LiarsCheatsOrThieves Aug 21, 1:49 p.m.

    Like I asked before, how would the authorities ever hope to enforce this law? The world wide web is a HUGE place.

  • camron28551 Aug 21, 1:25 p.m.

    People keep saying Facebook. If the law would have specifically stated that, it might have been Constitutional. Rather this law was so broad, it could have blocked Google and its many apps unrelated to contacting kids(which could be considered social media because of Google +) and Amazon (which we know has many other things it does). That's why this law was wrong.

  • katzpauz Aug 21, 12:00 p.m.

    @dsdaughtry: WRONG! The Appeals court is "liberal," it is the NC Supreme Court that is "Conservative."

  • paydapiper Aug 21, 9:55 a.m.

    Hmm, this is an interesting case. According to our constitution a person cannot twice be put in jeopardy of losing his freedom, possessions or the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet this class of people are punished for the rest of their lives. Once their debt to society has been paid, be it prison or probation or whatever, they are forever branded and their free pursuits are abridged. The supreme court has ruled multiple times that a child's supposed safety is not an over riding reason to limit an adults rights. Why do we not have a murderer registry, a purse snatcher registry, home invader registry? I detest child predators as much as anybody, but in a free society there has to be a limit on how much a persons rights can be trampled on.

  • Justis Aug 21, 8:24 a.m.

    Regardless of what LOCAL law states, it is against FaceBook's own TOS (terms of service) for a registered sex offender to use their site..

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