Packingham v. N.C., 582 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 1730 (Jun. 19, 2017)

North Carolina’s statute, G.S. 14–202.5, making it a felony for a registered sex offender to gain access to a number of websites, including common social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, violates the First Amendment. After the defendant, a registered sex offender, accessed Facebook, he was charged and convicted under the statute. The Court of Appeals struck down his conviction, finding that the statute violated the First Amendment. The N.C. Supreme Court reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed North Carolina’s high court. Noting the case “is one of the first this Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet,” the Court noted that it “must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.” The Court found that even assuming that the statute is content neutral and thus subject to intermediate scrutiny, it cannot stand. In order to survive intermediate scrutiny, a law must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest. Considering the statute at issue, the Court concluded:

[T]the statute here enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens. 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 those 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. These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard. They allow a person with an Internet connection to “become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”

In sum, to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. 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. (citations omitted)

The Court went on to hold that the State had not met its burden of showing that “this sweeping law” is necessary or legitimate to serve its preventative purpose of keeping convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. The Court was careful to note that its opinion “should not be interpreted as barring a State from enacting more specific laws than the one at issue.” It continued: “Though the issue is not before the Court, it can be assumed that the First Amendment permits a State to enact specific, narrowly tailored laws that prohibit a sex offender from engaging in conduct that often presages a sexual crime, like contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about a minor.”