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Sex Offenders Can't Be Banned From Social Media

When Lester Packingham, Jr. pleaded guilty in 2002 to taking indecent liberties with a child following a sexual relationship he had with a 13-year-old girl while he was 21, social media didn't exist. Facebook wouldn't go online for another two years, and a North Carolina ordinance prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing any "commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages" wouldn't be enacted for another six.

Still, Packingham was convicted of violating that statute in 2010, when he took to Facebook to say that "God is Good!" after having a traffic ticket dismissed. Packingham challenged his conviction on First Amendment grounds and the Supreme Court agreed, ruling state laws banning registered sex offenders from social media sites like Facebook are unconstitutional.

Registration and Restrictions

Convicted sex offenders can be subject to a multitude of conditions regarding their probation or parole. Every state has a mandatory sex offender registry requirement, although time on the registry can range from five years to life. And some courts have even sanctioned lifetime GPS monitoring of sex offenders. But the Supreme Court ruled that a blanket ban on all social media was a step too far.

Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy asserted:

[T]o foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. It is unsettling to suggest that only a limited set of websites can be used even by persons who have completed their sentences. 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 Internet and the Court

While admitting that the case was a first for the court, and noting that the "forces and directions of the Internet are so new, so protean, and so far reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today might be obsolete tomorrow," the Court was emphatic in its view that a "fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more."

Courts have often been wary of blanket bans on speech that don't require an inquiry into the content of that speech. And in this case the ban was too extreme: "a State may not enact this complete bar to the exercise of First Amendment rights," the Court held, "on websites integral to the fabric of our modern society and culture."

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