U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court strikes down law banning sex offenders from using social networking websites

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a North Carolina law that makes it a felony for a registered sex offender to access social networking websites that can be used by children.

The law, which bans sexual offenders from using websites like Facebook and Twitter, violates the First Amendment, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion (PDF). His opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The law was challenged by Lester Packingham of Durham, who pleaded guilty in 2002 to taking indecent liberties with a 13-year-old girl when he was a 21-year-old college student.

Packingham was convicted of violating the ban because of his Facebook post declaring “Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks Jesus!” to celebrate dismissal of a traffic ticket.

Kennedy said the North Carolina ban on social media use is “unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens.”

“With one broad stroke,” Kennedy said, North Carolina’s law bars registered sex offenders from accessing news websites, checking help wanted ads, “speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.”

“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,” Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy said his opinion should not be interpreted to bar states from enacting more specific laws, such as laws banning sex offenders from contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about a minor.

Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. concurred in the judgment in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the case.

Alito said he agreed the law violated the free speech clause because of its “extraordinary breadth.” But Alito said he couldn’t join the majority opinion “because of its undisciplined dicta. The court is unable to resist musings that seem to equate the entirety of the internet with public streets and parks.”

The majority’s language could leave the states “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 the peers,” Alito wrote.

Updated at 10 a.m. with additional information

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