By ROBIN VANDERWALL . . . Among the more significant cases concerning registered citizens that have made their way to the United States Supreme Court, few have had as much potential to change the course of appellate review and affirm the First Amendment protections guaranteed to every American citizen than Packingham v. North Carolina (petition No. 15-1194).
After the chief justice extended the time for filing, Atty. Glenn Gerding, counsel for the petitioner, Lester Gerard Packingham, filed a Petition for Certiorari from the North Carolina Supreme Court on March 21, 2016.
Mr. Packingham is a North Carolina registrant who was convicted by a jury in 2011 for accessing Facebook, a commercial networking website which permits minors as registered users. This was a violation of N.C.G.S. § 14-202.5. Before trial, Packingham sought to have the charges dismissed on grounds that the statute violated his First Amendment rights. In ruling on the motion, the trial judge found the statute to be constitutional as applied to the defendant and declined to address the defendant’s facial challenge for want of jurisdiction. Packingham was sentenced to 6 to 8 months in prison, fully suspended, pursuant to the completion of 12 months of supervised probation. Packingham appealed.
In August, 2013, a three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals vacated the lower court’s ruling and concluded that N.C.G.S. § 14- 202.5 was not narrowly tailored, vague, and failed to “target the ‘evil’ it is intended to rectify.” The Court of Appeals also held that the statute violated “the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, and [was] unconstitutional on its face and as applied.”
In turn, the NC Attorney General’s office appealed the Court of Appeals’ decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court which, on November 6, 2015, by a 4 to 2 decision, reversed the Court of Appeals’ Order to Vacate and re-instated Mr. Packigham’s conviction. The state supreme court held the statute to be constitutional in all respects since it proscribes only conduct (access to a social networking site) rather than speech and that the impact on an individual registrant’s speech was merely incidental to this prohibition on conduct.
While the Writ for Certiorari has not yet been granted, the United States Supreme Court appears interested enough in hearing the state’s response, which it formally requested on April 28, 2016. The state has until May 31 to respond so it’s impossible to know at this time either how the state will respond or when the Court might reschedule the Petition for conference.
Packingham’s petition summarizes that the chief question before the Court is “whether, under this Court’s First Amendment precedents, a law that makes it a felony for any person on the state’s registry of former sex offenders to ‘access’ a wide array of websites – including Facebook, YouTube, and nytimes.com – that enable communication, expression, and the exchange of information among their users, if the site is ‘know[n]’ to allow minors to have accounts, is permissible, both on its face and as applied to petitioner – who was convicted based on a Facebook ‘post’ in which he celebrated dismissal of a traffic ticket, declaring ‘God is Good!’”
The Petition for Writ surmises that this case requires the Supreme Court’s intervention because 1) the NC Supreme Court’s decision contravenes “first principles” of basic constitutional law because of the ruling’s unconventional application of “conduct regulation” and “heightened scrutiny” analyses, and 2) that the decision is in conflict with numerous lower court opinions.
Just a week before the U.S. Supreme Court requested a response from North Carolina, a group of 16 law professors led by Eugene Volokh filed an Amici Curiae on behalf of the petitioner focusing exclusively on the NC Supreme Court’s tortured application of an “ample alternative channels” standard to the statute at issue.
Retired professor of law, David Post, recently explained the rationale behind the professors’ brief in a post for The Volokh Conspiracy blog of the Washington Post. Professor Post argues that the NC Supreme Court’s analysis is absurd because it rests upon the incredulous proposition that websites such as the Pauline Dean network, wral.com, glassdoor.com, or shutterfly are comparable to social networking giants such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, and that prohibiting registrants from accessing such sites is no impediment to their First Amendment rights because such “ample alternatives” exist. Professor Post cites to his colleague’s previous explication of the Amicus brief here.
It is, of course, impossible to know whether the U.S. Supreme Court will grant the Writ. It grants very few. In any given year, the Court entertains nearly 8,000 petitions and grants certiorari in less than one percent (about 80). But the fact that the Packingham case was originally scheduled for conference on May 12 and then removed from the calendar consequent to the Amicus filing, quickly followed by the Court’s official request for a response from the state of North Carolina, at the very least provides surety that the Court is paying significant attention to the important constitutional questions underlying this Petition.