“The Supreme Court’s Mixed Signals in Packingham” is the title of a thoughtful comment by Bidish Sarma analyzing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Packingham v. North Carolina, recently published on the American Constitution Society website. (An early analysis of the Packingham decision by Wayne Logan appeared on this site on June 20.) Mr. Sarma proposes that “the time has come to ask whether society’s ‘war’ on sex offenders who have already completed criminal sentences has gone too far.”
While the Packingham holding is confined to the First Amendment issues raised by North Carolina’s broad restrictions on access to “an astounding range of websites (including news websites, WebMD and Amazon),” Sarma singles out a sentence in Justice Kennedy’s opinion suggesting a broader underlying concern about the constitutionality of sex offender consequences:
Justice Kennedy’s opinion hints that the justices in fact harbor concerns. In a parenthetical note, the decision referred to “the troubling fact that the law imposes severe restrictions on persons who already have served their sentence and are no longer subject to the supervision of the criminal justice system,” and observed that this fact is “not an issue before the Court.”
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.
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.
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.