The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday moved to buttress free speech rights in the digital age, striking down a North Carolina law banning convicted sex offenders from Facebook and other social media services that play a vital role in modern life. With the exception of Neil Gorsuch, who did not participate in the case because he was not on the Court when it was argued, every justice agreed that the law’s broad scope can not be reconciled with the First Amendment.
“No fine, no court costs, nothing spent…”
Even three Justices who did not support the main opinion agreed that the state law at issue “has a staggering reach” and they agreed it was invalid. His lawyers, though, said no evidence pointed to Packingham using Facebook or his computer to communicate with minors or that he posted anything inappropriate or obscene.
The justices ruled unanimously Monday in favor of North Carolina resident Lester Packingham Jr. Praise be to GOD, WOW! But they voiced worry that the lead opinion, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, had been “undisciplined” in its discussion of how far the First Amendment goes to protect expression via the Internet.
However, the court ruled that the North Carolina statute curtailed Packingham’s First Amendment rights.
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.
Justice Kennedy said states could likely enact laws banning a convicted sex offender from online behavior that often presages a future crime, such as “contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about a minor”.
Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion. He had received a suspended jail sentence after his conviction. “That is what North Carolina has done here”.
An intermediate state appellate court overturned Packingham’s 2010 conviction, but the state supreme court reversed that ruling and reinstated his conviction.
“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.