Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Supreme Court Rules North Carolina Internet Law a Free Speech Violation

Supreme Court Rules North Carolina Internet Law a Free Speech Violation

A controversially harsh law preventing registered sex offenders from accessing social media sites was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday. The court said general use of social media is a constitutional right, protected by the First Amendment.

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A Unanimous Decision

The ruling was made unanimously by all eight justices presiding (the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, did not participate in the case). As a consequence, they found the law impermissibly restricted lawful speech, in violation of the First Amendment.

While there were some disagreements among the justices regarding the rhetoric used in writing the majority opinion, all of them agreed that access to social media sites has become indispensable as everyday tools.

In the ruling, an argument was made that the law put an unnecessary burden on sex offenders as social media sites are now “…  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.”

As a result, they believe the law could actually be harmful in that it could prevent convicted criminals from receiving certain benefits. In doing so, it could also keep them from reforming themselves to become productive members of society.

Law Intended to Stifle Sexual Predators, Says North Carolina

The North Carolina state law was passed into law in 2008 and according to the state, the law was intended to “confront the threat sexual predators pose to children.”

Despite this seemingly well-intentioned reason, the statute itself required no proof that registered sex offenders were actually engaging in illegal activity while online. Instead it simply outright banned them from participating in social media sites completely.

This sweeping nature seems to be at the crux of the court’s decision to rule the state law as unconstitutional.

In fact, this reasoning was explicitly laid out by Justice Anthony Kennedy when writing for the majority opinion.

“… his case is one of the first this Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet. As a result, the Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.”

Law a Violation of the First Amendment

The ruling likely comes as good news to Lester Packingham, the man who brought the case to court.

Packingham was convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old when he was 21 and in college in 2002. After serving his sentence he registered as a sex offender in the state of North Carolina, and thus was within the purview of the state law.

In 2010 Packingham was prosecuted for violating the statute and, although he was given no prison time, he appealed his conviction arguing that the law violated his first amendment rights.

However, while the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with him, they did so with some reservations — still quick to point out the seriousness of child exploitation as a crime and calling it “ an act repugnant to the moral instances of decent people.”

Additionally, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote a separate concurring opinion that, although generally agreed with the majority opinion, was nonetheless critical of the rhetoric used in writing it.

What do you think of the Supreme Court’s ruling? Should registered sex offenders be allowed to use social media platforms?

Images via US Supreme Court and

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