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THE US SUPREME COURT STRIKES DOWN NC LAW BARRING PERSONS ON SEX OFFENDER REGISTRY FROM ACCESSING SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES

In 2010, Mr. Packingham, a person listed on the sex offender registry, posted on Facebook a note of gratitude to thank God for having a traffic ticket dismissed. After a police officer saw his post, Packingham was prosecuted and convicted under a North Carolina law that made it a felony for a convicted sex offender to use social-networking websites which allow minors to create profiles. Today, the Supreme Court agreed with him that the North Carolina law violates the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

In 2012, I represented Mr. Packingham and filed a motion to dismiss because the statute infringed upon the First Amendment right of free speech. Today in an 8-0 decision, the USSC agreed. Justice Kennedy began by outlining what he described as a “fundamental principle of the First Amendment”: that everyone should “have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more.” And even if once it may have been hard to determine which places are “the most important” “for the exchange of views,” Kennedy concluded, it isn’t hard now. Instead, he reasoned, it is “clear” that the Internet and, in particular, social media provide such opportunities.

He wrote that North Carolina’s law stifled “lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.” By barring sex offenders from using social-networking sites, he continued, the state “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.” “In sum,” Kennedy concluded, “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.”

This case is important because it “is one of the first this Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet.” Justice Kennedy warned that the court should “exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access” to ubiquitous social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.