Thousands of sex offenders have been prosecuted for engaging in activity which most of us take for granted. In many jurisdictions, it is a felony for a registered sex offender to access the internet for any reason. Some statutes also prohibit offenders from creating Facebook profiles using LinkedIn, or using any forms of social media. These prohibitions make it virtually impossible for offenders to even own a smartphone. They create great hardship, preventing people from seeking jobs, places to live, or even from communicating with family members. The recent Supreme Court case of Packingham v. North Carolina makes it clear that such blanket prohibitions will no longer withstand judicial scrutiny.
In Packingham, the defendant posted an innocuous comment about a positive experience he had in traffic court. This simple statement on Facebook was sufficient to result in him being charged and convicted of assessing a social media site as a convicted sex offender.
On review, the Supreme Court held that the statute violated the First Amendment. It first noted, “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.” Liking social media to a street or park as a “quintessential forum for the exercise of First Amendment rights,” the Court concluded that the broad wording of the challenged statute effectively, “foreclose[d] access to social media altogether” and thus, prevented the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. The Court correctly noted:
“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 resources 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 mechanism 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″
Sweeping laws that “suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech” will not pass judicial scrutiny. For this reason, laws such as the one rejected by the Court in Packingham are subject to challenge. If you believe your First Amendment rights are being violated by a ban on your use of the internet or other social media, please contact us to see if we can assist you in challenging this ban.