US Court Strikes Down Law Barring Sex Offenders From Access to Social Media Declaring It UnConstitutional

The US Supreme Court this week struck down a nine-year-old law barring sex offenders in North Carolina from accessing social media.
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A 2008 ban made it illegal for registered offenders to access a commercial networking site that permits minors—i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat.

But on Monday, eight Supreme Court justices declared the law unconstitutional, agreeing that it was a breach of the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.

“While we now may be coming to the realization that the Cyber Age is a revolution of historic proportions, we cannot appreciate yet its full dimensions and vast potential to alter how we think, express ourselves, and define who we want to be,” Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said.

“The forces and directions of the Internet are so new, so protean, and so far-reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today might be obsolete tomorrow,” he continued.

The case was brought by Lester Gerard Packingham who, as a 21-year-old college student in 2002, had sex with a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty, registered as an offender, and was barred from using social networks.

Eight years later, Packingham celebrated the dismissal of a traffic ticket with an excited message on Facebook. But when an investigating police officer connected Packingham to the post, the 29-year-old was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence—despite there being no evidence he committed any illicit act on the Internet.

An appeal flip-flopped through North Carolina courts—struck down in the Court of Appeals, then reversed by the State Supreme Court, before making its way to Washington.

“This case is one of the first this Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet,” Kennedy said. “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.”

One issue, according to the High Court, is the North Carolina statute’s broad wording, which leaves room for interpretation—such that access to websites “as varied as” Amazon, The Washington Post, and WebMD may also be blacklisted.

What’s more, by prohibiting sex offenders from using social media, the state “with one broad stroke” denies access to primary sources of current events and employment opportunities, and excludes people from “otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge,” Kennedy wrote.

“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,” he added.

Kennedy was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Justice Samuel Alito, “troubled by the implications of the Court’s unnecessary rhetoric,” wrote a separate concurring opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas. Newest member Justice Neil Gorsuch abstained from the case.

As of July 2013, 10 states (now excluding North Carolina) and the federal government restrict or ban the use of social networks by registered sex offenders. That includes Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, South Carolina, and Texas.