Monday, June 19, 2017
In the United States Supreme Court unanimous decision in Packingham v. North Carolina, the Court found that the state statute, NCGS § 14-202.5, making it a felony for registered sex offenders to access commercial social networking sites, violated the First Amendment. This outcome was predictable given the then-eight Justices' skepticism during the oral arguments in February. Recall that Packingham was convicted of the North Carolina felony for his Facebook page on which he wrote " Thank you Jesus. God is good" regarding a result on his parking ticket.
The Court's majority opinion by Justice Kennedy, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, is a mere 10 pages. The Court not only stresses the breadth of the North Carolina statute, but highlights the role of the Internet in "our modern society and culture" as vital to the First Amendment:
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. The Court has sought to protect the right to speak in this spatial context. . . .
While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense)for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace—the “vast democratic forums of the Internet” in general, Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U. S. 844, 868 (1997), and social media in particular. Seven in ten American adults use at least one Internet social networking service. . . .
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. The forces and directions of the Internet are so new, so protean, and sofar reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today might be obsolete tomorrow.
This case is one of the first this Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet. As a result, the Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.
For the Court majority, even assuming the North Carolina statute was content neutral and should be analyzed under intermediate scrutiny, the statute "enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens." The Court noted that the present statute applies to all social networking sites including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and that a state could possibly enact a more specific provision, such as prohibiting contacting a minor on social media.
In sum, to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. It is unsettling to suggest that only a limited set of websites can be used even by persons who have completed their sentences. Even convicted criminals—and in some instances especially convicted criminals—might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, in particular if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.
While Justice Alito's opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, agrees with the outcome, Alito criticizes Kennedy's opinion for the Court as not being sufficiently circumspect and cautious, and for engaging in "loose rhetoric." For Alito, the problem with the North Carolina statute is likewise its breadth: "its wide sweep precludes access to a large number of websites that are most unlikely to facilitate the commission of a sex crime against a child." Among Alito's examples are Amazon.com, the Washington Post website, and WebMD. Yet Alito's opinion, just slightly longer than Kennedy's for the Court, found it important to argue that the entirety of the internet or even social media sites are "the 21st century equivalent of public streets and parks." In support of this, Alito argues that the internet offers an "unprecedented degree of anonymity."
Yet Alito's concurring opinion does not essentially disagree with the Court's finding that it would be possible for a state to craft a sufficiently narrow statute. The disagreement, however, may be in the room for states to maneuver in drafting such a criminal statute.