Supreme Court reverses N.C. law banning sex offenders from social media

By Andrew V. Pestano  |  June 19, 2017 at 12:56 PM
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June 19 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously struck down a North Carolina law that banned registered sex offenders from using social networking websites such as Facebook.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that the law restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the consideration or decision for the case.

Lester Gerard Packingham, a registered sex offender living in North Carolina, was convicted in 2010 of violating the state law that indicates it is "unlawful for a sex offender who is registered ... to access a commercial social networking site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal web pages on the commercial social networking site."

Packingham, 36, was designated a sex offender in 2002 when he pleaded guilty at 21 to having consensual sex with a 13-year-old girl he said he was dating. He received a suspended sentence and he was required to register as a sex offender -- a designation that lasts 30 years. Packingham had no further sex offenses after his conviction.

Packingham's First Amendment case began on Facebook. When a traffic ticket was dismissed, Packingham posted on Facebook that "God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, no court costs, no nothing spent ... Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!"

A Durham, N.C., police officer, who had logged onto Facebook to see whether any registered sex offenders had been using the site, found Packingham's post.

Packingham sought to have the charges dismissed, arguing that the 2008 law infringes on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

An intermediate state appellate court overturned Packingham's 2010 conviction, but the state supreme court reversed that ruling and reinstated his conviction.

Before the Supreme Court, Packingham's lawyers argued the law imposes criminal punishment for activity protected under the First Amendment.

"It is well established that, as a general rule, the government 'may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech,'" Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion of the court. "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."

Allen Cone contributed to this report.

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