North Carolina Supreme Court upholds law prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing a social networking site

State v. Packingham. This opinion just broke. More analysis to come. For now, here are a few nuggets:

N.C.G.S. § 14-202.5 bans use of commercial social networking Web sites by registered sex offenders.

Defendant, a registered sex offender, had a Facebook account.

The case went to trial and, after considering evidence that defendant maintained a Facebook page, a jury on 30 May 2012 found defendant guilty of one count of accessing a commercial social networking Web site by a registered sex offender.

The Court of Appeals held that the statute violates the First Amendment and is unconstitutional on its face and as applied. It vacated defendant’s conviction.

The Supreme Court disagreed. First, the Court concluded that the action prohibited (accessing a site), is conduct, not speech. 

This limitation on conduct only incidentally burdens the ability of registered sex offenders to engage in speech after accessing those Web sites that fall within the statute’s reach.

The Supreme Court then concluded that, because the statute doesn’t care what the person does or says on the site, it is content neutral, and settles on intermediate scrutiny and proceeds to uphold the law. Below are some snippets from the opinion, and I promise analysis will be forthcoming.

Instead of imposing a blanket prohibition against Internet use, the statute establishes four specific criteria that must be met in order for a commercial social networking Web site to be prohibited. N.C.G.S. § 14-202.5(b). In addition, the statute entirely exempts Web sites that are exclusively devoted to speech, such as instant messaging services and chat rooms. Id. § 14-202.5(c). Thus we see that the General Assembly has carefully tailored the statute in such a way as to prohibit registered sex offenders from accessing only those Web sites that allow them the opportunity to gather information about minors, thereby addressing the evil that the statute seeks to prevent.

Only a site that generates or creates a Web page or a personal profile for the user and otherwise meets the requirements of the statute is prohibited. In addition, even if a site falls within the definition of a “commercial social networking Web site” found in subsection 14-202.5(b), in order to convict a registered sex offender of accessing the site, the State must prove that “the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages on the commercial social networking Web site.” N.C.G.S. § 14-202.5(a).

A sex offender engaging in an on-line job search is free to use the commercial social networking Web site Glassdoor.com, which prohibits use by individuals under the age of eighteen. Glassdoor Terms of Use, http://www.glassdoor.com/about/terms.htm

While we leave for another day the question whether a site’s terms of use alone are sufficient as a matter of law to impute knowledge of the site’s limitations on access to a registrant, such terms of use provide specific and pertinent information to a registered sex offender seeking lawful access to the Internet.

Thus, we conclude that N.C.G.S. § 14-202.5 satisfies O’Brien’s four factors, is narrowly tailored to serve a substantial governmental interest, and leaves available ample alternative channels of communication. Defendant has failed to meet the high bar necessary to mount a successful facial challenge. (citation omitted).

A statute that is constitutional on its face nevertheless may be unconstitutional as applied to a particular defendant. Because Facebook does not limit users to those over the age of eighteen and otherwise fits the definition of a commercial social networking Web site set out in N.C.G.S. § 14-202.5, defendant is forbidden to access that site unless the statute is unconstitutional as applied to him.

Here, defendant posted the following on Facebook: “Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? . . . Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!” If merely “liking” a post on Facebook.com is speech protected by the First Amendment, we have no doubt that posting a message on that site falls within this category as well. Thus, the statutory restrictions on defendant’s right to speech on Facebook, while incidental, are not trivial.

The State argues that protection of minors from known sexual predators is a vital duty, one this Court has recognized in another context. See Standley v. Town of Woodfin, 362 N.C. 328, 333, 661 S.E.2d 728, 731 (2008) (discussing the risk of recidivism among sex offenders).

In ascertaining whether the government’s interest in protecting children from registered sex offenders who are lurking on social networking Web sites and gleaning information on potential targets is furthered by prosecution of this defendant, we observe that defendant has the status of a registered sex offender because he was convicted of indecent liberties with a minor, a sex crime against a child falling directly within the purview of section 14-202.5. Officers who searched his home found a signed written notice advising defendant of sites he could not legally access. Defendant set up his Facebook page under an alias, further indicating his awareness that he was indulging in forbidden behavior while simultaneously hiding his identity from investigators and parents.

These facts satisfy us that the incidental burden imposed upon this defendant, who is barred from Facebook.com but not from many other sites, is not greater than necessary to further the governmental interest of protecting children from registered sex offenders. Thus, N.C.G.S. § 14-202.5 is not an unreasonable regulation and is constitutional as applied to defendant. Cf. id. at 550, 681 S.E.2d at 323.

Defendant also argues that N.C.G.S. § 14-202.5 is unconstitutionally overbroad.

As detailed above in our analysis of the facial constitutionality of the statute, we see that the statute is drafted carefully to limit its reach by establishing four specific criteria that must be met before access to a commercial social networking Web site is prohibited to a registered sex offender, N.C.G.S. § 14- 202.5(b); that the statute exempts sites that are exclusively devoted to speech, id. § 14-202.5(c); and that the statute requires the State to prove that a registered sex offender knew the site permitted minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages on the commercial social networking Web site, id. § 14- 202.5(a). These factors ensure that registered sex offenders are prohibited from accessing only those Web sites where they could actually gather information about minors to target. Outside these limits, registered sex offenders are free to use the Internet.

…we conclude section 14-202.5 does not sweep too broadly in preventing registered sex offenders from accessing carefully delineated Web sites where vulnerable youthful users may congregate.

Finally, the State challenges the Court of Appeals holding that the statute is unconstitutionally vague. Laws that are not “clearly defined” are void for vagueness under the Due Process Clause.

The Court of Appeals “assume[d] that persons of ordinary intelligence would likely interpret the statute as prohibiting access to mainstream commercial social networking sites such as Facebook.com.” Packingham, ___ N.C. App. at ___, 748 S.E.2d at 153. Whatever the status of other Web sites, no party disputes that Facebook.com, the site at issue here, falls under N.C.G.S. § 14-202.5’s definition of “commercial social networking Web site.” While an argument may be made that the statutory term “access” could be vague in other contexts, defendant’s logging into his Facebook account and posting a message on his page is unquestionably “accessing” Facebook.com. Defendant’s conduct defeats his vagueness claim.

Judge Hudson (joined by Justice Beasely) dissented, and Judge Ervin did not participate.