The Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina law Monday that prevented convicted sex offenders from using social media. The nine justices voted unanimously in favor of Lester Packingham Jr., a sex offender who violated the law by posting on Facebook in 2008.
The court ruled that preventing sex offenders from accessing social media violates the First Amendment. The case is one of the first instances in which the court has addressed the relationship between the First Amendment and the internet, and serves as an important window into the increasingly sophisticated picture the highest court has of our virtual lives.
"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," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court's opinion. "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."
North Carolina argued that our physical world can be equated to the virtual one. Sex offenders are already regularly banned from places like playgrounds and schools, so banning them from Facebook or Twitter, and other platforms that can be used by minors, should be viewed similarly, the state argued.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument, and asserted that social media sites are such important venues for expressions of free speech that it violates the First Amendment to prevent sex offenders from accessing them. The court's opinion is that "cyberspace" is the most important place for the "exchange of views" in our society today.
"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," Justice Kennedy wrote. "Foreclosing access to social media altogether thus prevents users from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights."
Justice Samuel Alito agreed that North Carolina violated the First Amendment, but was concerned that the broad ruling would make it difficult to protect minors on the internet. "If the entirety of the internet or even just 'social media' sites are the 21st century equivalent of public streets and parks, then States may have little ability to restrict the sites that may be visited by even the most dangerous sex offenders," he wrote in his concurring opinion.
However, the Supreme Court's ruling still leaves room for states to restrict who sex offenders connect with on social media (for example, it can prevent them from contacting minors).
"The statute here enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens," Justice Kennedy wrote.