EDITORIAL: Sex offenders can be tracked online, but not banished

Let the punishment fit the crime.

That should be the takeaway following Monday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling that struck down a North Carolina law banishing all registered sex offenders from all forms of social media.

The statute had a noble purpose — keeping pedophiles away from the message boards and apps where children interact. But the law lacked specificity and sought to treat all sex offenders as potential child predators, and it punished convicts for innocent, lawful online communications with other adults.

Justices ruled 8-0 for plaintiff Lester Packingham Jr., a Durham man charged with use of a social networking website by a sex offender in 2010 after posting a religious message on Facebook. Packingham thanked God that prosecutors had dismissed a traffic citation he had been issued.

“In sum, to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the ruling.

While Packingham’s crime did involve a child — he was convicted of statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 2002 when he was 21 — there was no evidence he had used his Facebook profile to engage in inappropriate communications with minors.

The law he was charged with violating, N.C. General Statute 14-202.5, applied to all sex offenders regardless of the age of their victims, undercutting the state’s argument that it was tailored to shield children from sexual predators on the internet.

After Packingham’s conviction, the N.C. Court of Appeals sought to set the law aside, finding in 2013 that it “fails to target the ‘evil’ it is intended to rectify.” The state Supreme Court overruled the appellate panel and upheld the law, setting a stage for a showdown in the nation’s highest court.

Monday’s decision recognizes the outsize role social media plays in modern life. While private companies like Facebook and Twitter can set their own policies for membership and participation, the U.S. Supreme Court found that government blocking someone from using the websites is akin to banning him or her from speaking in the town square.

North Carolina’s law was vague and broad, punishing all sex offenders harshly for the crimes of a few by depriving them of participation in the online marketplace of ideas. But that doesn’t mean a more careful statute wouldn’t pass constitutional muster.

Many states require sex offenders to provide their online account information to the authorities who monitor them during the course of their registration, and a Louisiana law that bans those convicted of child sex crimes from social networks children can join remains on the books.

Today’s ruling opens the door too wide for our liking, but by studying constitutional limits to social media use in other states, our legislators could enact a reasonable retread, crafting a law that would strike a balance between shielding children from online predators and allowing convicts who have paid their debt to society to reestablish their lives.

In the meantime, it remains incumbent upon parents to monitor their children’s use of social media and ensure they aren’t communicating with sexual predators who seek to exploit them.

The Wilson Times