To be fair, the headline isn’t entirely honest in terms of the sentiments being expressed, but as far as the letter of the law goes it’s pretty darned close. North Carolina passed a law some time back which would forbid persons on the sex offender registry from accessing or posting on various social media networks, including Twitter and Facebook. Presumably this would cut off an easy route of access to new victims, particularly children. But one former inmate who fell into this category challenged the law, claiming that it was far too broad and encroached on his rights. The law held up on appeal at the state level, but now the Supremes have tossed it. (CNN)
The Supreme Court unanimously struck down a North Carolina law that bars the use of commercial social networking sites, including Facebook, by registered sex offenders.
A lower court upheld the law, but lawyers for Lester Gerard Packingham—who is a registered sex offender– say it is too broad and swept in their client even though his Facebook posting concerned the fact that his parking ticket was dismissed.
This is yet another of those cases where I’m left wondering whether I should be listening to my heart or to my head. In some primal, reactionary way I see the question of whether or not I think sex offenders should be allowed on Facebook and my immediate reaction is, hell no. It’s too easy for them to contact kids that way.
But there’s another voice back there warning me that somebody’s essential liberties are being trod upon well beyond the boundaries of reasonable punishment for a crime, and if you let that stand, who will they be banning next? The entire idea of sex offender registry lists is problematic from the beginning. Even though we’re talking about some of the most horrible crimes imaginable which seriously make your skin crawl, they are still crimes and should have some set length of punishment associated with them. When you finish your time in prison and perhaps probation, you’ve presumably paid your debt to society. But with that registry you are effectively paying for the rest of your life. If your debt is paid, why are you not done? And if it’s not, why are you out of prison?
Still, even when we get past that argument there’s the question of whether or not everyone has a “right” to the internet. Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in this case and all but said as much. But as Stephan Dinan at the Washington Times notes, not all the justices agreed to the extent which the internet was a “right” for everyone.
Writing a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. seemed shocked by how far Justice Kennedy was willing to go, calling the majority ruling “undisciplined dicta.”
“The Court is unable to resist musings that seem to equate the entirety of the internet with public streets and parks,” he wrote, warning of unintended consequences.
“This language is bound to be interpreted by some to mean that the States are largely powerless to restrict even the most dangerous sexual predators from visiting any internet sites, including, for example, teenage dating sites and sites designed to permit minors to discuss personal problems with their peers,” Justice Alito said. “I am troubled by the implications of the Court’s unnecessary rhetoric.”
The largest aspect of legal social media use is speech. Yes, you’re taking in the opinions of others as well (er… such as they are, in many cases), but should you choose to do so you have the opportunity to respond, to engage, to kick off discussions with anyone who is willing to follow you and listen. As much as I don’t want sex offenders trolling around in forums where children hang out, shutting off their avenue to speak about all of the other subjects of discussion in the world sounds severe. Probably too severe. Barring the offender from knowingly contacting children seems like about as far as we should be able to go. But in the anonymous world of social media, how the heck do we enforce that? Too many tough questions to settle them all here.