COVID-19 Special Coverage
Supreme Court rules North Carolina sex offender social media restrictions unconstitutional
Supreme Court rules North Carolina sex offender social media restrictions unconstitutional

The US Supreme Court [official website] held [opinion, PDF] on Monday in Packingham v. North Carolina [SCOTUSBlog materials] that North Carolina’s statute § 14-202.5 [text], which banned sex offenders from using commercial websites accessed by minors, violates the First Amendment [text]. The statute was implemented to protect young adults from predatory practices often employed by sex offenders who target minors. The court found that the statute was too broad for the purpose of preventing recidivism and that barring the usage of several websites was too prohibitive and compromised freedom of speech. Justice Anthony Kennedy stated:

By prohibiting sex offenders from using those websites, North Carolina with one broad stroke bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge. These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard. They allow a person with an Internet connection to become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.

Kennedy also pointed out that the Supreme Court has often “sought to protect the right to speak in” physically spatial contexts, such as parks and street corners and that “While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace – the vast democratic forums of the Internet.” As one of the first cases to address the relationship between the Internet and the First Amendment, the court wanted to “exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.”

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Packingham in October and heard arguments [JURIST reports] in February. Lester Packingham had been a registered sex offender since 2002 when an officer doing routine searches on social media websites found a Facebook [official website] profile he confirmed belonged to Packingham. Packingham had made a post thanking God for good fortune concerning a traffic violation, an act which was prohibited by North Carolina’s statute. A jury convicted him of accessing a commercial social networking site. He appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which vacated Packingham’s conviction on the grounds that §14-202.5 banned the freedom of speech and association via social media. The State of North Carolina then appealed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, where Packingham’s acquittal was subsequently reversed.