Sex offenders have First Amendment right to Internet, social media

By DAVID BOOTH . . . On June 19, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the value of social media as a pervasive news source and a socially ingrained forum for exchanging communications when it struck down an overreaching North Carolina statute. The North Carolina law under consideration made it a felony for any person on the sex offender registry to access any social media platforms minors use. Justices unanimously agreed that “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.” Echoing Justice Kennedy in the court’s opinion, it is “a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more.”

“All persons” include people on the registry for sex crimes according to the ruling handed down Monday. Packingham v. North Carolina analyzed the extent to which North Carolina’s draconian measure to prevent anyone on the sex offender registry from using social media was necessary and legitimate. Justice Alito mentioned in his concurring opinion that the statute was so broad that accessing Amazon and Walmart could be construed as a violation. Not only was the law extremely broad, but the facts of the case were ripe for a challenge.

In 2002, at age 21, Lester Packingham engaged in sexual wrongdoing with a minor. He was convicted and served out his sentence. Flash forward eight years to 2010, when Lester logged on to Facebook to jubilantly praise God for a dismissed parking ticket. A North Carolina detective discovered the post and arrested him for violating the state ban on accessing Facebook.

Three facts are important to remember. One, Lester was no longer under community supervision, but he was still listed on the state’s registry for sex crimes. Two, Lester was not arrested for committing another act of sexual wrongdoing, nor was he ever convicted for using the internet to engage in sexual wrongdoing. Three, over 1,000 people have been prosecuted under this law since 2008. These facts implicate the North Carolina statute as more of a tool to restrict First Amendment rights and incarcerate people, with less utility given to preventing sexual abuse.

Please read David’s full commentary on the Sex Law and Policy Center website.

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