Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Social Media Ban for Sex Offenders Questioned at U.S. Supreme Court

  • U.S. Supreme Court argument centers on free-speech rights
  • Facebook, Twitter ‘incredibly important,’ Justice Kagan says

U.S. Supreme Court justices cast doubt on a North Carolina law that bars registered sex offenders from using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Hearing arguments in Washington, a majority of the justices indicated they read the law as going too far in restricting First Amendment rights and cutting off services that have become almost indispensable to millions of Americans. Justice Elena Kagan said the measure would bar people from reading Twitter messages from their elected representatives, including President Donald Trump.

"Everybody uses Twitter," Kagan said. "All 50 governors, all 100 senators, every member of the House has a Twitter account. So this has become a crucial -- crucially important channel of political communication."

The court is hearing an appeal from Lester Gerard Packingham, who says he is one of more than 1,000 people prosecuted under the state’s 2008 law. Packingham was convicted after setting up a Facebook account under a false name and posting a message that praised God for the dismissal of a traffic ticket.

Packingham was put on the state’s sex-offender registry in 2002, when he pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a child. Packingham, then 21, had been indicted on two counts of statutory rape of a 13-year-old.

Playgrounds, Schools

The North Carolina statute, one of the nation’s strictest, bars registered sex offenders from using commercial social networking sites that let minors become members.

North Carolina Senior Deputy Attorney General Robert Montgomery said the 2008 measure supplemented longstanding laws barring sex offenders from being at playgrounds, schools and day-care centers.

"North Carolina decided to prohibit sex offenders from being at virtual places where children congregate online," he said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was among those who suggested the state had gone too far.

"These people are being cut off from a very large part of the marketplace of ideas," she said. "The First Amendment includes not only the right to speak, but the right to receive information."

Justice Anthony Kennedy said social media sites covered more ground than the "public square," a figurative place the high court has long protected as a bastion of free speech.

"Assuming we had a public square a hundred years ago, could you say that this person couldn’t go into the public square?" Kennedy asked Montgomery.

‘Doing Nothing Wrong’

Packingham’s lawyer, David Goldberg, said the scope of the law meant it was "most likely to find the people who are doing nothing wrong, who are doing innocent things."

The two sides dispute just how far-reaching the North Carolina law is. Packingham’s lawyers say its wording is broad enough to prohibit access to nytimes.com. The state says the measure bars access only to true social-networking sites where people can link to the personal pages of other users.

Justice Samuel Alito offered some support for the law, suggesting that people had a wealth of communication options even without social media. He asked Goldberg whether his client would have been able to make the same argument in 2003, before Facebook was created.

"I know there are people who think that life is not possible without Twitter and Facebook and these things and that 2003 was the Dark Ages," Alito said. "But I don’t know that any channels of communication that were available at that time have been taken away. So if there were alternative channels then, why would there not be alternative channels now?"

Kagan suggested the law had problems in addition to its scope. She pointed to exceptions in the statute for websites that offer only chat rooms or photo-sharing services, a description she said would include the social-media service Snapchat.

"So you can use Snapchat, but you can’t use Twitter?" she asked.

The case, which the court will resolve by June, is Packingham v. North Carolina, 15-1194.

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