A controversial North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling that allows sex offenders to use social media sites has prompted conversations about the effectiveness of laws restricting sex offenders' internet presence, internet security and freedom of speech in the digital age.
A 2008 North Carolina law that prohibited registered sex offenders from utilizing social media sites that could potentially put them in contact with minors has been deemed unconstitutional on the grounds of ambiguity and violation of the First Amendment. The court made the ruling last Tuesday.
Lester Gerard Packingham, a Durham County sex offender, was charged with a felony for creating a Facebook profile, according to the Associate Press. Packingham appealed the charge last year. His attorney argued against the law’s vague terminology and criticized its ability to hinder registered sex offenders from using the internet in a broader sense. The panel ruled that the law took away the right to free speech that is guaranteed to all United States citizens.
Amy Cleckler, gender violence prevention program coordinator at the Women’s Center, said the internet has enabled sex offenders to access more inappropriate material at a faster pace.
“Do I think there [are] more sickos in the world? No." Cleckler said. "Do I think they have much more freedom to share and receive inappropriate material? Absolutely."
Although this law may be a step in the right direction for monitoring social media sites, Cleckler said it should also encourage students to be more mindful of the information they put online.
“Students have grown up in a different time… and are much more likely to be free with their personal information on the internet,” Cleckler said. “There is always more room for caution and being careful about who you trust.”
Senior Caroline Hall, a Women’s Center intern, said social media serves as an outlet of self-expression for teenagers yet can also lead to a lack of caution.
She cited the "others" box of the Facebook message feature as an example. The box allows users to view messages they have received from people they are not friends with but can also give strangers a chance to communicate with an unsuspecting student.
The law’s unconstitutional ruling proves that the illegality of this type of contact is yet to be determined, Hall noted. The concept of free speech is by no means defined, and perhaps it is only further confused by the Internet age.
“The internet is evolving so quickly and I’ve never really thought about what free speech is,” Hall said. “[Does] interaction [constitute] speech [is] a question that needs to be posed.”
Still, the law was not only struck down for its violation of the First Amendment but also for its ambiguity.
Sophomore Joy Sun, also a Women's Center intern, suggested a change in wording to make the law more effective, noting that instead of all registered sex offenders, the law should have targeted sex offenders with a history of interactions with minors.
Cleckler added that often men who have molested several children will appear on the same list as a seventeen year-old who had consensual sex with his fifteen year-old girlfriend.
“A sex offender is very ambiguous,” Hall said. “People…who’ve made mistakes… may not necessarily down the line deserve to have this attached to their name forever.”
The panel made a unanimous ruling, but the state has decided to try the case again at the state Supreme Court level with the hope of a different outcome.