Packingham v. North Carolina
582 US ___ (2017)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

North Carolina law made it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a 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.” N.C. Gen. Stat. 14–202.5(a), (e). The state has prosecuted over 1,000 people under that law. Petitioner was indicted after posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive traffic court experience. State courts upheld the law. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Today, one of the most important places to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media. Even if the statute is content-neutral and subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision is not “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” While social media will be exploited by criminals and sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime, the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” The statute “enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens…. 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 state did not establish that this sweeping law is necessary to keep convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims.

Prior History

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

PACKINGHAM v. NORTH CAROLINA

certiorari to the supreme court of north carolina

No. 15–1194. Argued February 27, 2017—Decided June 19, 2017

North Carolina law makes it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a 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.” N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§14–202.5(a), (e). According to sources cited to the Court, the State has prosecuted over 1,000 people for violating this law, including petitioner, who was indicted 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 indictment 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 §14–202.5 on First Amendment grounds, but the State Supreme Court reversed.

Held: The North Carolina statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Pp. 4–10.

(a) A fundamental First Amendment principle is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, 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,” Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U. S. 844 , to users engaged in a wide array of protected First Amendment activity on any number of diverse topics. 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. 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. Pp. 4–6.

(b) This background informs the analysis of the statute at issue. Even assuming that the statute is content neutral and thus subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision is not “ ‘ “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” ’ ” McCullen v. Coakley, 573 U. S. ___, ___. 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,” Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 535 U. S. 234 , and that a legislature “may pass valid laws to protect children” and other sexual assault victims, id., at 245. However, the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U. S. 557 .

Two assumptions are made in resolving this case. First, while the Court need not decide the statute’s precise scope, it is enough to assume that the law applies to commonplace social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Second, the Court assumes that 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.

Even with these assumptions, the statute here enacts a prohibition unprecedented 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. Foreclosing access to social media altogether thus prevents users from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. Even convicted criminals—and in some instances especially convicted criminals—might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, particularly if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives. Pp. 6–8.

(c) The State has not met its burden to show that this sweeping law is 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. The State relies on Burson v. Freeman, 504 U. S. 191 , but that case considered a more limited restriction—prohibiting campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place—in order to protect the fundamental right to vote. The Court noted, moreover, that a larger buffer zone could “become an impermissible burden” under the First Amendment. Id., at 210. The better analogy is Board of Airport Comm’rs of Los Angeles v. Jews for Jesus, Inc., 482 U. S. 569 . If an ordinance prohibiting any “ First Amendment activities” at a single Los Angeles airport could be struck down because it covered all manner of protected, nondisruptive behavior, including “talking and reading, or the wearing of campaign buttons or symbolic clothing,” id., at 571, 575, it follows with even greater force that the State may not enact this complete bar to the exercise of First Amendment rights on websites integral to the fabric of modern society and culture. Pp. 9–10.

368 N. C. 380, 777 S. E. 2d 738, reversed and remanded.

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas, J., joined. Gorsuch, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Primary Holding

States may not prohibit a sex offender from accessing social media if they know that minor children may be members or have personal web pages on the site, since this law is unconstitutionally overly broad under the First Amendment and does not withstand strict scrutiny.

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