We have no way to know whether any higher powers read Packingham’s Facebook posts. But at least one mortal authority did: a Durham, N.C., police officer who had logged onto Facebook to see whether any registered sex offenders had been using the site. He found the post by Packingham, who had been indicted in 2002 on two counts of statutory rape of a 13-year-old and eventually convicted of taking “indecent liberties of a minor.” Packingham had been sentenced to 10 to 12 months in prison, which the judge suspended, and ordered to register as a sex offender.This morning, the Supreme Court ruled that the “North Carolina statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment.”
Based on his Facebook post, Packingham was charged with violating a North Carolina law that makes it a crime for a registered sex offender to “access” a “commercial social networking Web site” when he “knows” that it allows minors. Packingham asked the trial court to dismiss the charges, arguing that the law infringes on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, but the trial court declined to do so. Packingham was convicted and received a suspended sentence. An intermediate state appellate court overturned his conviction, but the state supreme court reversed that ruling and reinstated his conviction. Last fall the justices agreed to weigh in, and next week they will hear oral argument in his case.
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.