The Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina law Monday that bans registered sex offenders from accessing Facebook and other social media.
The court ruled 8-0 that the law impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment.
In delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said a fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, respond.
“While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear,” he said. “It is cyberspace — the ‘vast democratic forums of the Internet’ in general and social media in particular.”
The case centered on Lester Gerard Packingham, a registered sex-offender, who was charged with a felony in 2010 after he wrote a post on Facebook about his good fortune in getting out of a traffic ticket.
“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!” his post said, according to court documents.
The North Carolina law made it a felony for registered sex offenders to access a commercial social networking website if the sex offender knows the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal web pages.
Packingham challenged the law, claiming it violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
The state appeals court originally ruled in his favor, but the North Carolina Supreme Court later found the law to be “constitutional in all respects.”
The state argued before the justices that the law must be broad to accomplish its purpose — keeping convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims.
But Kennedy said the state failed to show how such a sweeping law was necessary or legitimate.
“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,” he said.
“These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard. They allow a person with an Internet connection to ‘become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.’”
Justice Neil Gorsuch took no part in considering or deciding the case.