In one of the first cases to be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court addressing the First Amendment and the Internet, the nation’s top court recently reversed a state law that prohibited sex offenders from using social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.
Forbidding access to social media prevents the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights, the court said.
“Even convicted criminals—and in some instances especially convicted criminals—might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, in particular if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives,” the court wrote in Packingham v. North Carolina.
The North Carolina statute, which made it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages,” restricted lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment, the nation’s top court said.
Registered sex offender
North Carolina enacted a statute in 2008 making it a felony for a registered sex offender to gain access to a number of websites, including social media websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
In 2002, Lester Gerard Packingham—then a 21-year-old college student—had sex with a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a child.
Because the crime qualified as “an offense against a minor,” Packingham was required to register as a sex offender. As a registered sex offender, Packingham was barred under the statute from gaining access to social networking sites.
However, in 2010, when a state court dismissed a traffic ticket against him, Packingham logged on to Facebook and posted a statement expressing his gratitude under a phony name.
At the time, a member of the Durham Police Department, investigating registered sex offenders who were thought to be violating the law, noticed the statement and, by checking court records, discovered that a traffic citation for Packingham had been dismissed around the time of the post. Evidence obtained by a search warrant confirmed the officer’s suspicions that Packingham had posted the statement.
Packingham was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence.
At no point during trial or sentencing did the state allege that Packingham contacted a minor—or committed any other illicit act—on the Internet, the court said.
On appeal, the court struck down the state law on First Amendment grounds, explaining that the law was not narrowly tailored to serve the state’s legitimate interest in protecting minors from sexual abuse. However, the state’s supreme court reversed, concluding that the law was “constitutional in all respects.”
Access to Places Where They Can Speak
But, when the case came before the nation’s top court, the U.S Supreme Court, in an 8-0 vote, struck down the law, citing the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
The court said that a fundamental First Amendment principle is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, noting that one of the most important places today to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media.
Social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another, the Supreme Court said.
But, the court observed, North Carolina barred access to what, for many, are the principal sources for learning about current events, checking ads for employment and speaking and listening in the modern public square. Not allowing access to social media prevents users from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court declared.
The state had not met its burden to show that the broadly written law was necessary to serve its purpose of keeping convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims, the court declared.
The court also explained that it was making assuming that the law applies to commonplace social networking sites and that the First Amendment allows a state to enact “specific, narrowly-tailored” laws that prohibit a sex offender from engaging in conduct that often occurs before a sexual crime, such as contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about a minor.
The case was released on June 19.
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