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Supreme Court to decide whether sex offenders can be barred from social media

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Majority of justices suggested that North Carolina’s social media ban goes too far in restricting free speech

Supreme Court 1 (Verge Stock)

The Supreme Court this week suggested that it may strike down a North Carolina law that makes it illegal for registered sex offenders to use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites, with several justices signaling that the broadly-worded statute could violate free speech rights.

As Bloomberg reports, the court on Monday heard an appeal from Lester Gerard Packingham, a registered sex offender in North Carolina who was arrested in 2010 for setting up a Facebook account under a fake name. Packingham was added to the sex offender registry in 2002, after he was arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl and pleaded guilty. He was given a suspended jail sentence, but was later arrested for a Facebook post in which he thanked God for not receiving a traffic ticket.

Packingham was arrested under a 2008 North Carolina law that bars registered sex offenders from using any social networks that allow minors as members. His lawyer, David Goldberg, told the court on Monday that although sex offenders could be barred from communicating with minors or visiting certain sites under parole conditions, the scope of the 2008 statute goes too far in limiting their free speech rights and curtailing access to information. Goldberg also argued that the law’s wording was so vague that it could be used to bar access to the New York Times website, because it has a social networking component.

North Carolina Senior Deputy Attorney General Robert Montgomery countered by characterizing the law as an extension of others that bar sex offenders from being near playgrounds or schools. He also said that convicted sex offenders can use alternative platforms, such as blogging websites.

“[I]t has to be remembered that these are sex offenders who have been convicted of sex offenses, and they should be cut off from sources of information that they can use to perpetuate their crimes against children,” Montgomery said. “And so they are being cut off from these particular websites, but they have other means in which they can gather news, that they can communicate with friends, that they can share pictures.”

At least five justices cast doubt on that argument, pointing to the importance of social media sites as a channel of communication today. "Everybody uses Twitter," Justice Elena Kagan. "All 50 governors, all 100 senators, every member of the House has a Twitter account. So this has become a crucial — crucially important channel of political communication."

"These people are being cut off from a very large part of the marketplace of ideas," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said. "The First Amendment includes not only the right to speak, but the right to receive information."

Justice Samuel Alito was the only one who expressed support for the law, according to Bloomberg, saying that there are still many alternatives to social media services. "I know there are people who think that life is not possible without Twitter and Facebook and these things and that 2003 was the Dark Ages," he said. "But I don’t know that any channels of communication that were available at that time have been taken away.”

A decision in the case, Packingham v. North Carolina, 15-1194, is expected in June.