Supreme Court Strikes Down Sex Offender Social Media Ban

(CN) — The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a North Carolina law that bars convicted sex offenders from using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other popular social media websites.

In a unanimously ruling, the justices held the law impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment.

The case involves North Carolina resident Lester Packingham Jr., who was arrested for dating a 13-year-old when he was 21.

Packingham denied he knew how old the girl was, but eventually pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a minor.

The court suspended his sentence but forced him to register as a sex offender.

Six years later, Packingham found himself a gain in hot water, this time after he took to Facebook to celebrate beating a traffic ticket.

“Man God is Good!” Packingham said in his post. “How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, No court costs, no nothing spent….Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!” (Emphasis in original.)

Packingham’s post was seen by a Durham, N.C. police officer investigating whether sex offenders in the state were using social media, and he was charged with violating a 2008 law aimed at keeping sex offenders off internet sites children might use.

In May 2012, a jury found Packingham of violating the law, and he was given a suspended sentence and placed on probation.

He appealed, and in 2013 the North Carolina Court of Appeals vacated his conviction, finding that the law at issue is unconstitutional.

The state appeals court found that the statute “is not narrowly tailored, is vague, and fails to target the ‘evil’ it is intended to rectify,” and that it “arbitrarily burdens all registered sex offenders by preventing a wide range of communication and expressive activity unrelated to achieving its purported goal.”

A divided North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the appeals court ruling the law “is constitutional in all respects.”

In March 2016, Packingham appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in a petition for writ of certiorari filed in March of this year.

“The statute singles out a subclass of persons, who are subject to criminal punishment based on expressive, associational, and communicative activities at the heart of the First Amendment, without any requirement that their activity caused any harm or was intended to,” Packingham’s petition said.

Writing for the court on Monday, Justice Anthony Kennedy said even if one were to concede the importance of the state’s declare goal — to protect minors from sexual predators online — “the statute here enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens.”

Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Kennedy’s opinion. Justice Samuel Alito filed a concurring opinion which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Justice Neil Gorsuch took no part in the decision.

“A fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more,” Kennedy wrote. “The Court has sought to protect the right to speak in this spatial context. A basic rule, for example, is that a street or a park is a quintessential forum for the exercise of First Amendment rights … ”

“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’ … and social media in particular.”

The justices rejected the state’s argument that the law must be broad in order to protect minors on the Internet, saying North Carolina did not meet the burden of showing why its “sweeping law” was “necessary or legitimate to serve that purpose.”

“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,” Kennedy wrote. “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.’”

“In sum,” Kennedy said, “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.”

The case was remanded back to the North Carolina Supreme Court for further proceedings.

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