Sex Offenders & Cyberspace

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In Packingham v. North Carolina, the United State Supreme Court outlawed a North Carolina statute that makes it a felony for a registered sex offender to access a commercial social networking web site. The statute restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2008, North Carolina enacted a statute making it a felony for a registered sex offender to gain access to a number of websites, including commonplace social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. North Carolina has prosecuted over 1,000 people for violating this law.

The Defendant was charged after posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive experience in traffic court. The trial court denied petitioner’s motion to dismiss the charges on the ground that the law violated the First Amendment. He was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence. On appeal, the State Court of Appeals struck down the statute on First Amendment grounds, however, the North Carolina Supreme Court ended up reversing the decision.

The United States Supreme Court granted review on the issue is whether the Carolina Statute was permissible under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, applicable to the States under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment.

First, the Court reasoned that the First Amendment allows all persons have access to places where they can speak, listen, reflect, speak and listen once more. Today, one of the most important places to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media, which offers “relatively unlimited, low-cost capacity for communication of all kinds to users engaged in a wide variety of protected First Amendment activity on any number of diverse topics. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U. S. 844, 870. The Court stated that the Internet’s forces and directions are so new, so protean, and so far reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today may be obsolete tomorrow. Indeed, the Court expressly proceeded very carefully in its analysis:

“Here, in one of the first cases the Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet, the Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.”

That said, the Court bluntly reasoned that the statute is not narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.  Like other inventions heralded as advances in human progress, the Internet and social media will be exploited by the criminal mind. It is also clear that sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime and an act repugnant to the moral instincts of a decent people, and that a legislature may pass valid laws to protect children and other sexual assault victims.

“Two assumptions are made in resolving this case,” said the Court. First, the law applies to commonplace social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Second, 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.

However, the Court reasoned that even with these assumptions, the North Carolina statute enacts unprecedented prohibitions in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens:

“Social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another on any subject that might come to mind. With one broad stroke, North Carolina 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.”

The Court said that even convicted criminals might receive legitimate benefits from the social media for access to the world of ideas, particularly if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.

Consequently, the Court reasoned that North Carolina failed to prove that its sweeping law was necessary or legitimate to serve its purpose of keeping convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. “No case or holding of this Court has approved of a statute as broad in its reach.” With that, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded Mr. Packingham’s criminal conviction.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Granted, nobody wants anyone using the internet for predatory purposes. Nevertheless, its simply unconstitutional to totally prohibit people – even convicted sex offenders – from using the internet and social media. There’s plenty of spyware, child molestation sting operations and government internet monitoring happening on the internet to reduce the risk of predatory behavior. There’s no need for the Government to make statutes which violate Constitutional rights.

Good decision.