When Lester Gerard Packingham Jr. was 21 years old, he had sex with a 13-year-old girl. He says the relationship was consensual and that he never knew her age. Still, a jury convicted him of indecent liberties with a minor, and he served 10 months in prison. That was 15 years ago.
Three years ago, Packingham signed up on Facebook under the name J.R. Gerrard and posted about his joy in getting out of a traffic ticket. Problem is, Packingham is a registered sex offender, and in North Carolina, it’s illegal for that group to access any social networking site.
The state Legislature passed this law in 2008 in an effort to keep sex offenders from contacting minors online. The law only applies to social networking sites that allow those under age 18 to sign up, like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. North Carolina has prosecuted more than 1,000 people under the law, and detectives caught Packingham during a sting operation.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case with Packingham’s attorneys claiming the law violates his First Amendment right to free speech. North Carolina’s Supreme Court upheld the statute in November.
During Monday’s arguments, Packingham’s lawyer, David Goldberg, said, "The law … 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.” He argues — and a lower court agreed — that the law is too broad. Louisiana, for instance, has a similar law that only applies to those previously convicted of offenses against minors, not simply all sex offenses.
There is no doubt that sexual predators use the internet to make contact with children. There are countless stories of young people meeting a shady character in person after chatting with them online. Some of those stories end just fine, but others end in horror and tragedy. While there are definitely steps parents can take to minimize the possibility of such contact, nothing is foolproof.
Those in favor of this law claim it is similar to those that forbid sex offenders from being within a certain distance of a school or playground. Does it pose the same possibility of danger for a sex offender to log onto Twitter as if they walked in to an elementary school? It definitely could.
One problem, though, is the wide variation in offenses for those on the sex offender registry. It matters to me whether someone on the list was convicted of public urination, or at the other end of the spectrum, the rape of a child. I might have no problem in having the former on Facebook — although I doubt I would friend that person — but might think twice about the latter having an account.
Also at issue is the question of what constitutes a social media site. The North Carolina statute defines it as a website that “facilitates the social introduction between two or more persons for the purposes of friendship, meeting other persons, or information exchanges.” So that would seem to include any website that merely allows comments (Deseret News, Amazon, Google).
That would also include banning registered sex offenders from something like an online classifieds site. This law also does nothing to prevent a predator from creating a completely fake account to catfish an unsuspecting victim. The only way a registered sex offender can be caught under the current law is if they are using enough real information that a police department can flag it.
This argument really goes back to the basic debate over which rights people lose after they are convicted of certain crimes. Would it be fair for registered sex offenders to have a scarlet letter attached to their profiles on social media? Or do those convicted sex offenders have every right to post on Facebook and friend whomever they choose once they have served their time?
While the Supreme Court seems to be leaning toward striking down North Carolina’s law, we don’t expect a ruling until June.
No matter what they decide, this is a good reminder for parents to monitor closely children’s online activity. It’s essential to know what they’re doing in the social media world and who they’re chatting with online, and to make sure they only friend their real-life friends. Above all, communicate. Talk with your children about the reasons why it’s so important to follow the rules you have set for them in their digital lives. But first, make sure you have those rules in place. There’s no better time to make it happen than right now.