Law School Case Brief
Packingham v. North Carolina - 137 S. Ct. 1730 (2017)
Social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another about it on any subject that might come to mind. By prohibiting sex offenders from using social media 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. It is unsettling to suggest that only a limited set of websites can be used even by persons who have completed their sentences. Even convicted criminals—and in some instances especially convicted criminals—might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, in particular if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.
In 2002, petitioner Lester Gerard Packingham—then a 21-year-old college student—had sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a child. Because the crime qualified as an offense against a minor, petitioner was required to register as a sex offender. As a registered sex offender, petitioner was barred under N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§14-202.5 from gaining access to commercial social networking sites, including commonplace social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. The statute made it a felony for a registered sex offender to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages. After posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive experience in traffic court, Packingham was indicted and convicted for violating N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§14-202.5. On appeal, Packingham argued that the law violated the First Amendment. The appellate court struck down the law, explaining that the law is not narrowly tailored to serve the State’s legitimate interest in protecting minors from sexual abuse. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the law was constitutional in all respects. Subsequently, Packingham sought a review of the state supreme court’s decision.
Is N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§14-202.5 unconstitutional for violating registered offender’s right to free speech?
The Court held that N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-202.5, which made it a felony for registered sex offenders to access commercial social networking websites where a sex offender knew the site allowed minor children to become members or to create or maintain a personal web page, was unconstitutional because it impermissibly restricted lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause, which was applicable to North Carolina under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. According to the Court, the State has not met its burden to show that this sweeping law is necessary or legitimate to serve its purpose of keeping convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. Accordingly, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the state supreme court’s decision.
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