SCOTUS invalidates law criminalizing sex offender access to social media

Departing from its customary reluctance to find fault with laws singling out convicted sex offenders for harsh treatment, after they have completed their sentences, the Supreme Court in Packingham v. North Carolina yesterday struck down a state law making it a felony for registered sex offenders to access commercial social networking websites. The petitioner in Packingham, a registered sex offender, violated the North Carolina law when after learning that a traffic ticket against him had been dismissed in court he posted the following message on his Facebook.com personal profile:

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!

Packingham was convicted and thereafter challenged his conviction on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the law violated his right to free speech.

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Court rules sex offenders cannot be barred from social media

The Supreme Court ruled on June 19, without dissent, that sex offenders cannot constitutionally be barred from social-networking sites.  SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe introduced the Court’s ‘s holding in Packingham v. North Carolina as follows:

In 2002, Lester Packingham became a convicted sex offender at the age of 21, after he pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a child – having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Packingham got into hot water with the law again in 2010, when he posted on Facebook to thank God for having a traffic ticket dismissed. After a police officer saw his post, Packingham was prosecuted and convicted under a North Carolina law that makes it a felony for a convicted sex offender to use social-networking websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, that allow minors to create accounts. Today Packingham has something else to be grateful for, and he can take to social media to express that appreciation, because the Supreme Court agreed with him that the North Carolina law violates the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

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Supreme Court considers restrictions on sex offender access to internet

This morning the Supreme Court considered whether sex offenders may constitutionally be barred from internet access to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.  Lester Packingham, who was required to register as a sex offender after pleading guilty to taking “indecent liberties” with a minor when he was a 21-year-old college student, ran afoul of a North Carolina criminal statute when he praised God on Facebook for the dismissal of his traffic tickets.

At least five Justices expressed some degree of skepticism over broad restrictions on what Justice Elena Kagan called “incredibly important parts” of the country’s political and religious culture, some questioning the premise that the law is necessary to prevent sexual abuse of minors.  Justice Kennedy noted the many ways in which the North Carolina statute seems to violate the First Amendment.  “Let me count the ways,” he said, invoking Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Some justices noted that criminal convictions can have lasting consequences. “Some states prohibit ex-felons from voting,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “Some states and the federal government prohibit keeping and bearing arms. Those are constitutional rights.”  David T. Goldberg, a lawyer for Mr. Packingham, said those restrictions had a basis in history and logic. They were nothing like “taking away people’s First Amendment rights,” he said.

In this early post from SCOTUSblog, Amy Howe notes high points of the argument, whose full transcript of the argument is posted here.  Adam Liptak predicted at the New York Times that the North Carolina law will be found unconstitutional before the end of the Court’s Term in June.  What this might portend for other restrictions on sex offenders’ constitutional rights – like the exclusionary zones, also imposed by North Carolina, and also held unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds by the Fourth Circuit in December – remains to be seen.