The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday February 8th

Supreme Court to hear NC sex offender case

The law, passed in 2008, bans North Carolina sex offenders from using commercial social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the New York Times website.

Packingham v. North Carolina, the case being considered, originated in 2011 following the indictment of Lester Packingham for illegal social media use as a registered sex offender. The defendant argued that the statute was unconstitutional due to its violation of the First Amendment.

However, the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the statute last November.

“The court says this is a content-neutral speech restriction, and therefore it’s permissible so long as it sufficiently serves an important government interest,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law. “Here, the interest is in preventing sex offenders from finding out information about children, so that they could potentially contact them and essentially arrange to molest them.”

Glenn Gerding, the North Carolina appellate defender who represented Packingham, said the case raises concerns about free speech.

“The legal issue is whether the state can restrict a person’s access to the use of social media websites, and it’s an issue involving the First Amendment,” he said.

Bill Marshall, a professor at the UNC School of Law, said the court will look at other channels of communication available to sex offenders in place of social media.

“I think the case does open up a possibility that the court is going to look at social media in a way that it hasn’t before,” he said.

Volokh said the Supreme Court generally considers alternative forms of communication that provide similar services to those restricted when determining if content-neutral restrictions are constitutional.

He said he thinks the Supreme Court will strike down the statute.

“When you’re talking about foreclosing one of the most important social networks out there, one of the most important and practical means of communicating with people, that doesn’t leave ample alternative channels,” Volokh said.

Gerding said the statute should be struck down due to its potential impact on future First Amendment interpretation.

“At the U.S. Supreme Court, they obviously have to be concerned about not just the particular case but also the impact on the entire country, so the decision will have application across the United States, not just to North Carolina,” he said.

Volokh also said the impact of the statute could be far-reaching.

“I just want to highlight that the First Amendment legal issues here go far beyond sex offenders and could apply to content-neutral restrictions that cover all of us,” he said.

@beccaheilman

state@dailytarheel.com



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