Sex-Offender Social Media Ban Thrown Out by U.S. High Court

  • Supreme Court unanimously throws out North Carolina law
  • Court says measure violated speech right of sex offenders

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out a North Carolina law that barred registered sex offenders from using social media sites including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Voting 8-0, the court said the measure went too far in restricting First Amendment rights and cutting off access to commonly used services.

"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," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court. "These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard."

The ruling is a victory for Lester Gerard Packingham, who said 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.

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

In a separate opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said he agreed with the result but not what he said were "undisciplined" remarks in Kennedy’s opinion.

"The court is unable to resist musings that seem to equate the entirety of the internet with public streets and parks," Alito wrote. The justice said he was concerned other courts would interpret the ruling to mean states can’t bar sexual predators from teenage-dating sites or from forums where minors discuss personal problems with peers.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas joined Alito’s opinion. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the court after the case was argued, didn’t participate.

North Carolina argued that the 2008 measure supplemented longstanding laws barring sex offenders from being at playgrounds, schools and day-care centers.

The two sides disputed just how far-reaching the North Carolina law was. Packingham’s lawyers said its wording was broad enough to prohibit access to the New York Times’s website. The state said the measure bars access only to true social-networking sites where people can link to the personal pages of other users.

The case is Packingham v. North Carolina, 15-1194.

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