August 22, 2017
A North Carolina law limiting access to social media sites for sex offenders made national news this month as it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Packinham v. North Carolina. The law made it a felony for registered sex offenders to access any social networking site where they knew minor children were “allowed to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages”. In the case before the court, the Petitioner registered sex offender made authorities aware of his social media activities with a boasting post about beating a traffic ticket.
The North Carolina law allowed the court to expand its interpretation of the First Amendment as it relates to internet activities. The relatively small of body of constitutional law and the internet makes this case of noteworthy as it gives the Court a clearer picture of how to rule on internet cases in the future. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the court, striking down the law as a violation of the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. Kennedy equated social media to other public forums like streets or parks, which have traditionally been afforded the highest level of protection by the court. Because the law was content neutral, or did not discriminate against the content of the banned speech, the state needed to show that the law could pass intermediate scrutiny. To do that, the law must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest and must not burden speech more than is necessary to serve that government’s legitimate interest. Kennedy and the majority found that the law was overly broad, possibly denying access for these individuals to sites like Amazon.com and WebMd.com. Additionally, the court recognized the importance social media has to informing individuals on current events, updates from their friends and relatives and most importantly, to exercising their First Amendment rights in the most powerful way possible.
Justice Alito and Justice Thomas cautioned in their concurring opinion against allowing certain individuals unchecked access to the internet. The concurring justices were not ready to equate social media with a public park, and believed State’s should be allowed to restrict registered sex offenders’ access to sites like teenage dating sites, as long as the laws are more specific than the North Carolina law.
North Carolina and Louisiana were the only States to employ a law limiting social media access to sex offenders.