Packingham v. North Carolina,
582 U.S. ___ (2017)

Annotate this Case

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

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No. 15–1194

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LESTER GERARD PACKINGHAM, PETITIONER v. NORTH CAROLINA

on writ of certiorari to the supreme court of north carolina

[June 19, 2017]

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 2008, North Carolina enacted a statute making it a felony for a registered sex offender to gain access to a number of websites, including commonplace social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. The question presented is whether that law is permissible under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, applicable to theStates under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

I

A

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) (2015). A “commercial social networking Web site” is defined as a website that meets four criteria. First, it “[i]s operated by a person who derives revenue from membership fees, advertising, or other sources related to the operation of the Web site.” §14–202.5(b). Second, it “[f]acilitates the social introduction between two or more persons for the purposes of friendship, meeting other persons, or information exchanges.” Ibid. Third, it “[a]llows users to create Web pages or personal profiles that contain information such as the name or nickname of the user, photographs placed on the personal Web page by the user, other personal information about the user, and links to other personal Web pages on the commercial social networking Web site of friends or associates of the user that may be accessed by other users or visitors to the Web site.” Ibid. And fourth, it “[p]rovides users or visitors . . . mechanisms to communicate with other users, such as a message board, chat room, electronic mail, or instant messenger.” Ibid.

The statute includes two express exemptions. The statutory bar does not extend to websites that “[p]rovid[e] only one of the following discrete services: photo-sharing, electronic mail, instant messenger, or chat room or message board platform.” §14–202.5(c)(1). The law also does not encompass websites that have as their “primary purpose the facilitation of commercial transactions involving goods or services between [their] members or visitors.” §14–202.5(c)(2).

According to sources cited to the Court, §14–202.5 applies to about 20,000 people in North Carolina and the State has prosecuted over 1,000 people for violating it. Brief for Petitioner 6–8.

B

In 2002, petitioner Lester Gerard Packingham—then a 21-year-old college student—had sex with a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a child. Because this crime qualifies as “an offense against a minor,” petitioner was required to register as a sex offender—a status that can endure for 30 years or more. See §14–208.6A; see §14–208.7(a). As a registered sex offender, petitioner was barred under §14–202.5 from gaining access to commercial social networking sites.

In 2010, a state court dismissed a traffic ticket against petitioner. In response, he logged on to Facebook.com and posted the following statement on his personal profile:

“Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, no court cost, no nothing spent. . . . . .Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!” App. 136.

At the time, a member of the Durham Police Department was investigating registered sex offenders who were thought to be violating §14–202.5. The officer noticed that a “ ‘J. R. Gerrard’ ” had posted the statement quoted above. 368 N. C. 380, 381, 777 S. E. 2d 738, 742 (2015). By checking court records, the officer discovered that a traffic citation for petitioner had been dismissed around the time of the post. Evidence obtained by search warrant confirmed the officer’s suspicions that petitioner was J. R. Gerrard.

Petitioner was indicted by a grand jury for violating §14–202.5. The trial court denied his motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the charge against him violated the First Amendment. Petitioner was ultimately convicted and given a suspended prison sentence. At no point during trial or sentencing did the State allege that petitioner contacted a minor—or committed any other illicit act—on the Internet.

Petitioner appealed to the Court of Appeals of North Carolina. That court struck down §14–202.5 on First Amendment grounds, explaining that the law is not narrowly tailored to serve the State’s legitimate interest in protecting minors from sexual abuse. 229 N. C. App. 293, 304, 748 S. E. 2d 146, 154 (2013). Rather, the law “arbitrarily burdens all registered sex offenders by preventing a wide range of communication and expressive activity unrelated to achieving its purported goal.” Ibid. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the law is “constitutional in all respects.” 368 N. C., at 381, 777 S. E. 2d, at 741. Among other things, the court explained that the law is “carefully tailored . . . to prohibit registered sex offenders from accessing only those Web sites that allow them the opportunity to gather information about minors.” Id., at 389, 777 S. E. 2d, at 747. The court also held that the law leaves open adequate alternative means of communication because it permits petitioner to gain access to websites that the court believed perform the “same or similar” functions as social media, such as the Paula Deen Network and the website for the local NBC affiliate. Id., at 390, 777 S. E. 2d, at 747. Two justices dissented. They stated that the law impermissibly “creates a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth and extends well beyond the evils the State seeks to combat.” Id., at 401, 777 S. E. 2d, at 754 (opinion of Hudson, J.) (alteration, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court granted certiorari, 580 U. S. ___ (2016), and now reverses.

II

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. The Court has sought to protect the right to speak in this spatial context. A basic rule, for example, is that a street or a park is a quintessential forum for the exercise of First Amendment rights. See Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U. S. 781, 796 (1989) . Even in the modern era, these places are still essential venues for public gatherings to celebrate some views, to protest others, or simply to learn and inquire.

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—the “vast democratic forums of the Internet” in general, Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U. S. 844, 868 (1997) , and social media in particular. Seven in ten American adults use at least one Internet social networking service. Brief for Electronic Frontier Foundation et al. as Amici Curiae 5–6. One of the most popular of these sites is Facebook, the site used by petitioner leading to his conviction in this case. According to sources cited to the Court in this case, Facebook has 1.79 billion active users. Id., at 6. This is about three times the population of North America.

Social media offers “relatively unlimited, low-cost capacity for communication of all kinds.” Reno, supra, at 870. On Facebook, for example, users can debate religion and politics with their friends and neighbors or share vacation photos. On LinkedIn, users can look for work, advertise for employees, or review tips on entrepreneurship. And on Twitter, users can petition their elected representatives and otherwise engage with them in a direct manner. Indeed, Governors in all 50 States and almost every Member of Congress have set up accounts for this purpose. See Brief for Electronic Frontier Foundation 15–16. In short, social media users employ these websites to engage in a wide array of protected First Amendment activity on topics “as diverse as human thought.” Reno, supra, at 870 (internal quotation marks omitted).

The nature of a revolution in thought can be that, in its early stages, even its participants may be unaware of it. And when awareness comes, they still may be unable to know or foresee where its changes lead. Cf. D. Hawke, Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly 341 (1971) (quoting Rush as observing: “ ‘The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed’ ”). So too here. While we now may be coming to the realization that the Cyber Age is a revolution of historic proportions, we cannot appreciate yet its full dimensions and vast potential to alter how we think, express ourselves, and define who we want to be. 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.

This 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.

III

This background informs the analysis of the North Carolina statute at issue. Even making the assumption that the statute is content neutral and thus subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision cannot stand. In order to survive intermediate scrutiny, a law must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” McCullen v. Coakley, 573 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 18) (internal quotation marks omitted). In other words, the law must not “burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 19) (internal quotation marks omitted).

For centuries now, inventions heralded as advances in human progress have been exploited by the criminal mind. New technologies, all too soon, can become instruments used to commit serious crimes. The railroad is one example, see M. Crichton, The Great Train Robbery, p. xv (1975), and the telephone another, see 18 U. S. C. §1343. So it will be with the Internet and social media.

There is also no doubt that, as this Court has recognized, “[t]he 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, 244 (2002) . And it is clear that a legislature “may pass valid laws to protect children” and other victims of sexual assault “from abuse.” See id., at 245; accord, New York v. Ferber, 458 U. S. 747, 757 (1982) . The government, of course, need not simply stand by and allow these evils to occur. But the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U. S. 557, 563 (1969) .

It is necessary to make two assumptions to resolve this case. First, given the broad wording of the North Carolina statute at issue, it might well bar access not only to commonplace social media websites but also to websitesas varied as Amazon.com, Washingtonpost.com, and Webmd.com. See post, at 6–9; see also Brief for Electronic Frontier Foundation 24–27; Brief for Cato Institute et al. as Amici Curiae 10–12, and n. 6. The Court need not decide the precise scope of the statute. It is enough to assume that the law applies (as the State concedes it does) to social networking sites “as commonly understood”—that is, websites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. See Brief for Respondent 54; Tr. of Oral Arg. 27.

Second, this opinion should not be interpreted as barring a State from enacting more specific laws than the one at issue. Specific criminal acts are not protected speech even if speech is the means for their commission. See Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U. S. 444 –449 (1969) ( per curiam). Though the issue is not before the Court, it can be assumed 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. Cf. Brief for Respondent 42–43. Specific laws of that type must be the State’s first resort to ward off the serious harm that sexual crimes inflict. (Of importance, the troubling fact that the law imposes severe restrictions on persons who already have served their sentence and are no longer subject to the supervision of the criminal justice system is also not an issue before the Court.)

Even with these assumptions about the scope of the law and the State’s interest, 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 about it on any subject that might come to mind. Supra, at 5. By prohibiting sex offenders from using those websites, North Carolina with one broad stroke 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. These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard. They allow a person with an Internet connection to “become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.” Reno, 521 U. S., at 870.

In sum, to 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.

IV

The primary response from the State is that the law must be this broad to serve its preventative purpose of keeping convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. The State has not, however, met its burden to show that this sweeping law is necessary or legitimate to serve that purpose. See McCullen, 573 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 28).

It is instructive that no case or holding of this Court has approved of a statute as broad in its reach. The closest analogy that the State has cited is Burson v. Freeman, 504 U. S. 191 (1992) . There, the Court upheld a prohibition on campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place. That case gives little or no support to the State. The law in Burson was a limited restriction that, in a context consistent with constitutional tradition, was enacted to protect another fundamental right—the right to vote. The restrictions there were far less onerous than those the State seeks to impose here. The law in Burson meant only that the last few seconds before voters entered a polling place were “their own, as free from interference as possible.” Id., at 210. And the Court noted that, were the buffer zone larger than 100 feet, it “could effectively become an impermissible burden” under the First Amendment. Ibid.

The better analogy to this case is Board of Airport Comm’rs of Los Angeles v. Jews for Jesus, Inc., 482 U. S. 569 (1987) , where the Court struck down an ordinance prohibiting any “ First Amendment activities” at Los Angeles International Airport because the ordinance covered all manner of protected, nondisruptive behavior including “talking and reading, or the wearing of campaign buttons or symbolic clothing,” id., at 571, 575. If a law prohibiting “all protected expression” at a single airport is not constitutional, id., at 574 (emphasis deleted), 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 our modern society and culture.

*  *  *

It is well established that, as a general rule, the Government “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.” Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 535 U. S., at 255. That is what North Carolina has done here. Its law must be held invalid.

The judgment of the North Carolina Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

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