RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s Supreme Court has agreed to a temporarily keep in place a state law banning sex offenders from social networking sites such as Facebook because children use them.
Attorney General Roy Cooper sought the high court’s order days after a unanimous state Court of Appeals panel struck down the law last week. The Supreme Court’s order will keep the law in effect while state lawyers ask the high court to consider the case of Lester Gerard Packingham, Cooper’s office said Friday.
A three-judge appeals court panel threw out Packingham’s felony conviction after the registered sex offender in Durham County created a Facebook page. The appeals court said the 2008 law was vague and violated free speech rights. Since it was a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court is not obligated to take up Cooper’s appeal.
“We plan to ask the Supreme Court to review the case and uphold this tool that law enforcement and prosecutors can use to protect children,” Cooper said in a statement. “Instead of lurking around playgrounds, today’s child predators go online where they can groom multiple victims at once.”
Cooper helped lobby for the law at a time when attorneys general nationwide pressured Facebook and MySpace to protect users from sexual predators found to be using their networks.
The law made it illegal for a registered sex offender to access a website where the person knows minors have personal Web pages.
Packingham’s attorney argued the law wasn’t narrowly written to serve a legitimate government interest and could prohibit routine Internet activity, such as a performing a Google search. The General Assembly passed the law to make people feel more secure without considering how it would be implemented, said Glenn Gerding, the Chapel Hill lawyer who represented Packingham.
The Court of Appeals ruled state attorneys had failed to make a convincing argument about the law’s vagueness. The law defines “commercial social networking website” as one that derives revenue from membership fees or advertising, facilitates social introductions and allows users to create pages to post information.
The law makes exceptions for websites that provide a narrow service like email, but it could apply to accessing Google, Amazon or even a cooking TV channel website because they contain secondary social networking pages, the appeals court ruling said.
Packingham was convicted in 2002 of taking indecent liberties with a child. Durham police began investigating MySpace and Facebook profiles to enforce the law in 2010. That’s where officers say they found a picture of Packingham at Facebook and determined he created the profile page, the opinion said. Packingham was convicted in May 2012. He received a suspended sentence and probation.
People convicted since 1996 of sexually violent offenses or certain crimes against children must register with the sheriff in the county they reside. Offenders are barred from living close to a school or daycare, working with minors or visiting certain locations where children are likely to be.
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