Too little, too late from the Wilson Times editorial board

By ROBIN VANDERWALL . . . While we’re happy to see that the editors at The Wilson Times understand the danger of legislative overreach when it comes to First Amendment rights, it’s clearly too late for the N.C. Legislature to correct a law that, if overturned, will set national precedence once the U.S. Supreme is finished with its judicious scalpel. Bottom line is easy enough to find: First Amendment rights are fundamental to, and birthrights of, every American citizen. There is no justification whatsoever for denying any American the equal protection of laws insofar as they protect a fundamental right. Sex offenders who are not on probation or parole are no longer subjected to a “qualified” or rationally articulated version of First Amendment protections no matter what manner of crime they may have committed. End of story. Denying a citizen “access” to social media is to deny him “access” to the public forum for expressing opinions about law, politics, culture, religion, history, or any possible subject under heaven. Imagine a law that prevented access to a telephone on the basis that someone might use it to contact a minor. Absurd and ridiculous!


Our Opinion: Sex offenders’ social media ban needs a rewrite

Not all sex offenders are created equal.

A well-intentioned but overreaching state law barring registered sex offenders from using Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media — whether or not their crimes involved either children or the internet — is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Durham resident Lester Gerard Packingham appealed his 2012 conviction of maintaining a social media profile as a sex offender, arguing that the state law is unconstitutional. The N.C. Court of Appeals agreed with Packingham in August 2013, but the state Supreme Court upheld the statute last year in a 4-2 ruling.

The federal high court agreed last month to let Packingham plead his case that the law violates the First Amendment by squelching ex-convicts’ online speech.

Under N.C. General Statute 14-202.5, sex offenders are prohibited from accessing commercial social networking websites that extend membership to minors. That sounds reasonable and necessary for pedophiles, but it’s a head-scratcher for offenders who have groped or sexually assaulted other adults.

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Court of Appeals Judge Rick Elmore wrote in 2013 that the vague law “fails to target the ‘evil’ it is intended to rectify” — namely, child sexual predators trolling the internet for their next victim.

The state Supreme Court reversed the appellate panel, finding that the law regulated conduct rather than speech and that its definition of verboten websites left offenders with “ample alternative channels for communication.” Justices even provided examples, including recipe-sharing sites, job boards and a television news station’s website.

There’s likely to be a lot of legal hairsplitting over the state court’s “ample alternative channels” language, which is also the focal point of a friend-of-the-court brief filed by First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh.

Rather than getting into the weeds of that technical argument, we’ll appeal instead to common sense. What good does it do to arbitrarily ban all sex offenders from Facebook when most of those convicts have no interest in scoping out young users?

Registered sex offenders are about as reviled as any category of criminal. But the same label applied to rapists and child molesters is also used to tag teenagers who share racy photos or are punished for sexual relationships with slightly younger classmates.

Not only is North Carolina able to distinguish the former from the latter, it already does. The state applies the term “sexually violent predator” to those convicted of certain crimes and “recidivist” to those who reoffend. Those designations are included on the publicly searchable sex offender registry.

Instead of wasting taxpayer money to defend a carelessly crafted law in the nation’s highest court, why not revise the statute to exclude only child sexual predators from social networking sites?

Lawmakers have two choices: Stand behind sloppy work and risk a ruling that could open the floodgates to all sex offenders or fix their mistake and protect children by shutting out those who pose a genuine danger.  (Source)

Robin Vander Wall

Robin is NCRSOL's president.

Robin Vander Wall

4 thoughts on “Too little, too late from the Wilson Times editorial board

  • Avatar
    November 14, 2016 at 8:33 am
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    While I am excited to see the Packingham case making its way to the Supreme Court, I am also concerned. We all know that if the existing social media law is struck down, it will most certainly be replaced almost immediately. What if, like the premises law, it gets worse? What if they introduce terminology that bans a Google account, so that sex offenders can no longer use an Android phone or Gmail or Google Calendar? It’s already worded badly enough that whether you can watch YouTube or not largely seems to be up to discretion – even if it’s not always clear whether they mean their discretion or the offender’s.

    There should certainly be some degree of restrictions on the use of social media, but they certainly shouldn’t be as tight as they are. I would actually be in favor of a small committee or team that analyzes the social media sites and their policies, demographics, and means of communication, then creates an easily-accessible, regularly updated list of sites that are and are not permissible – or those that are permissible with qualifiers.

    For example, YouTube again – make it permissible to upload videos, but not to post comments or directly communicate with other users. Have a penalty for violations. Instagram? Use it all you want, but if you are caught using it to solicit a minor, as unlikely as that is, automatic penalty of some sort. It doesn’t seem like a great difficulty to compile such a list.

    Frankly, they should have been doing it all along. The law as it stands right now has a series of qualifiers to denote what does and does not constitute a commercial social networking site that permits minors as users, and they certainly could have paid someone to compile and maintain a spreadsheet that tells both offenders and sherriff’s departments what would be acceptable. As it is, the AG’s office tells the Sherriff’s Department, “use your best judgment”.

    To their credit, the Sherriff’s Departments in some areas err on the side of leniency with offenders that have had a good track record, but sites that families and friends use to communicate, such as Twitter, Instagram, and others, remain off-limits entirely. And the idea that an offender might get different treatment based on what county they live in or even what Deputy is in charge of the SORU that year is, on its face, unfair.

    Robin, I’m always excited to see what your efforts toward RSOL will bring, just be careful out there. We want sanity in our laws, but if we are not cautious with the litigation, knee-jerk reactions might result in things getting worse.

    Reply
    • rwvnral
      November 14, 2016 at 11:55 am
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      Thank you for your interest and your comment. Our position is very simple. We don’t believe there is anything reasonable about restricting anyone’s access to social media (or any other platform for communication). Nor do we believe that law enforcement should ever be in a position to dole out rights in accordance with their assessment of this or that offender. That is to turn the citizen into a ward of the state. Registered citizens who are NOT on probation or parole deserve the exact same level of First Amendment protection as any other citizen. Robin

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    • Avatar
      November 19, 2016 at 6:01 pm
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      I have to agree with Robin. If you are not currently on parole or probation these social media laws have zero place in our society. Unlike the premise laws, which are God awful as well, if the social media laws get axed by the supreme court I don’t think there will be a mad dash to replace them. Mainly because it’s not something people come face to face with everyday(premise being more physical where social media is virtual) Also, these laws are little copied across the US. (Even Florida doesn’t impose restrictions as ridiculous as these) and it would be extremely difficult for them to wordsmith any effective ban on social media with a ruling in our favor.

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    • Avatar
      January 17, 2017 at 4:04 pm
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      Well said. I am of the opinion that, instead of restricting access of those on the SOR, our society should instead restrict aof the minors. For one, parents should be the protectors of their children and not the government. Next, most of the Bill of Rights have been restricted to minors so why should the First Amendment be any different?

      Reply

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