Court rules state cannot ban sex offenders from social media sites
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a North Carolina law prohibiting registered sex offenders from using Facebook, Twitter and other popular social media websites often used by minors in Cherokee and surrounding counties as well as across the globe.
During the June 19 ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the 2008 state law, saying it is a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. The law made it a felony for any sex offender registered in the state to use online services which may lead to social interactions with minors.
Sex offender laws in North Carolina require people to register with the sheriff’s office in the county where they live if convicted after 1996 of sexually violent offenses and specific crimes against children. The N.C. Department of Public Safety’s website shows 60 registered sexual offenders in Cherokee County, plus 23 in neighboring Clay County and 21 in Graham County.
The case that shined the spotlight on the law involved state resident and registered sex offender Lester Packingham Jr., who challenged the state law as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
According to CourthouseNews.com, Packingham was convicted in 2002 for having sex with a 13-year-old when he was 21. The North Carolina resident denied knowing the girl’s age but ended up pleading guilty to taking indecent liberties with a minor. His sentence was suspended, but he was forced to register as a sex offender.
Six years later, Packingham got into trouble again when he bragged on Facebook about beating a traffic ticket. Court documents reported police in Durham found Packingham’s Facebook profile photo and post while investigating sexual offenders’ use of social media.
Packingham was given a suspended sentence and placed on probation in May 2012 after a jury found him guilty of violating the law, but he appealed. Later, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled the law was too broad, found it unconstitutional and reversed the man’s conviction. The court claimed the law did not “target the evil it is intended to rectify” and it “arbitrarily burdens all registered sex offenders by preventing a wide range of communication and expressive activity unrelated to achieving its goal.”
In November 2015, the N.C. Supreme Court reversed the appeals court, ruling the law “is constitutional in all respects.” Gov. Roy Cooper, who was attorney general at the time, provided this statement after the 2015 reversal:
“Our laws bar convicted sex offenders from living near schools and working with young people in real life, and it’s just as important to protect kids in the online world. I pushed for this law to put another barrier between sex offenders and potential victims, and I’m pleased that the court has agreed with our arguments to keep this law in place.”
Cooper urged the N.C. General Assembly to pass the 2008 social media ban for sexual offenders, along with other laws including sentencing requirements for pornographers and predators of children who use the Internet to target victims.
Packingham took his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2016. A portion of his petition read, “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.”
Following this week’s ruling, U.S. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court, “This case is one of the first this court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet. As a result, the court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.”
Kennedy continued, “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. 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.”
Despite the state’s argument saying the law needs to be broad to protect minors using the Internet, the justices rejected it, saying North Carolina did not meet the burden of proof to show 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’s ruling states, “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. It is unsettling to suggest that only a limited set of websites can be used even by persons who have completed their sentences. 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.”
Kennedy’s statement went on to say, “Even with these assumptions about the scope of the law and the state’s interest, the statute here enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens. Social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another about it on any subject that might come to mind.”
Many states have laws requiring sex offenders to report Internet use to authorities, while some states limit Internet use for some people on parole or probation. Louisiana has a similar law to the overturned North Carolina law; however, Louisiana’s law only applies to people convicted of sex crimes with children.