SCOTUS Opens Up Social Media To Registered Sex Offenders

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Alexa Archambault Capitol Hill Intern
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The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday to strike down a North Carolina law that prohibits registered sex offenders from using Facebook and other social media sites.

The case, Packingham v. North Carolina, resulted in a win for petitioner Lester Gerard Packingham, who was charged with a felony after writing a Facebook post in 2010. The post, which involved him thanking God for avoiding a traffic ticket, was illegal under N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§14–202.5 since he was convicted for having sex with a minor in 2002.

However, the court ruled that the North Carolina statute curtailed Packingham’s First Amendment rights.

“To foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights,” Justice Kennedy wrote in the opinion.

This case, as noted in the opinion, is one of the first that the Supreme Court has taken to clarify the relationship between the First Amendment and modern-day means of online communication. It goes on to say that due to the ever-changing nature of the internet, courts must realize their opinions could be outdated in a matter of days.

The Court also concedes that while there have been discrepancies regarding where the most important places are for the exchange of ideas, the answer is now clear: cyberspace.

“It is well established that, as a general rule, the Government ‘may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.'” the opinion concludes, citing the 2002 case Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition. “That is what North Carolina has done here. Its law must be held invalid.”

While the decision was unanimous, Justice Neil Gorsuch did not partake in the consideration or decision of this case, as he was not on the Court at the time it was argued.

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion.

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