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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Supreme Court Finds Social Media Ban for Convicted Sex Offenders Unconstitutional

For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the question whether social media activities (i.e., posting, commenting, etc on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and other sites) are considered "speech" under the First Amendment. In today's case, the Court answered that question yes. Packingham v. North Carolina.

A North Carolina law makes 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.”  The law reportedly would apply to about 20,000 people in North Carolina and over 1,000 people have been prosecuted for violating it.

Packingham was convicted under this law for posting the following statement on his personal Facebook profile about a state court dismissed a traffic ticket against him: 
“Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, no court cost, no nothing spent. . . . . .Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!”
He appealed his conviction on the basis that the law violated his First Amendment free speech rights. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Packingham’s favor this week, striking down the law as unconstitutional. 

The Court first determined that the law applies to common social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The court noted that social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another, and that the law 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. In the Court's opinion, foreclosing access to social media altogether prevents users (even convicted criminals) from engaging in a legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.

Although the Court acknowledged that the government can enact specific, narrowly-tailored laws to prohibit sex offenders from engaging in certain social media activities (like contacting a minor or using a website to gain information about a minor), the Court found the North Carolina law too broad because it also prohibited protected First Amendment activities on social media that had nothing to do with keeping sex offenders away from vulnerable victims.

In sum, the Court stated as follows: 
[T]o 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.
The concluded that as a general rule, the Gov­ernment “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.” Because that is what North Carolina’s law did, the Court held it was invalid.  

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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