Packingham v. North Carolina: Broad Law Banning People Convicted of Sex Crimes from Accessing Internet Violates First Amendment
The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down a broadly-written North Carolina law that banned persons convicted of sex crimes from internet access to a wide variety of websites.
In Packingham v. North Carolina, decided June 19, the Court ruled that a statute which made it a felony for persons required to register as sex offenders to access websites which permit minor children to become members violated the First Amendment.
North Carolina had prosecuted over 1000 people for violating the law.
The law covered, or potentially covered, not only social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In, but also commercial and informational sites, such as Amazon.com, Washingtonpost.com and WebMD.com.
All eight justices who participated in the case found the law too broad.
The First Amendment protects access to places where people can speak and listen, the five-member majority said. “While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace … and social media in particular.”
“Even making the assumption that the statute is content neutral and thus subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision cannot stand,” the Court said, because it is not “narrowly tailored.”
“[T]he 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,” the Court said. “Even with these assumptions about the scope of the law and the State’s interest, the statute here enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens.”
The statute “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.”
“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,” the Court concluded.
Justice Alito, joined by Justices Roberts and Thomas, concurred because of the law’s “staggering reach” and “extraordinary breadth.”
But they criticized the “undisciplined dicta” in the majority opinion that seems “to equate the entirety of the internet with public streets and parks.”
“[T]his language is bound to be interpreted by some to mean that the States are largely powerless to restrict even the most dangerous sexual predators from visiting any internet sites, including, for example, teenage dating sites and sites designed to permit minors to discuss personal problems with their peers,” Alito said.