In North Carolina, it is a felony for registered sex offenders to access “commercial social networking Websites where the sex offender knows that the site permits minors to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages”. The State has reportedly convicted over 1,000 people for violating this law, including the petitioner. The petitioner, Lester Packingham, is a registered sex offender in North Carolina after being convicted of taking “indecent liberties” with a minor in 2002, as a 21-year-old college student. By North Carolina law, he was sentenced to a standard 10-12 months in prison, followed by 24 months of parole. He was later arrested again in 2010, for going on facebook.
He requested that the charges be dismissed and argues that the North Carolina law that prohibits sex offenders from accessing social media sites restricts lawful speech and is in violation of the First Amendment. The trial court denied Packingham’s request and he was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence. The North Carolina supreme court held that decision. The petitioner then requested an appeal and the case then moved up to the U.S Supreme Court.On June 19, 2017, The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioner. They exercised Judicial Restraint and decided unanimously (8 to 0), that the North Carolina law violated the First Amendment and the sentence was reversed.
Justice Samuel A. Alito, later joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Thomas, delivered the concurring opinion. They argued that the North Carolina law was struck down because it affected websites that were unlikely to facilitate or enable contact with a child. Thus, the North Carolina law excessively and unconstitutionally, prohibited speech.This ruling affirmed the observation that Free Speech is one of the most important principles of the American constitution.
And now the challenge we are faced with is defining how the First Amendment applies to speech in the world of the Internet.The judges stressed that the law went too far because it included websites that were unlikely to enable Packingham to come into contact with a minor, and that is why it was unconstitutional. But, after further analysis, it is found that North Carolina can accomplish their initial goal by rewriting the law and narrowing it down to specific websites that pose a threat to children’s safety. The government has a legitimate interest in protecting children from abuse, but this law too broadly restricts access to all sorts of websites that are unrelated to achieving its goal. It is not unconstitutional or uncommon for criminal convictions to have lasting consequences for the person. Those consequences can consist of restricting constitutional rights, as we can see in other existing laws.
For example, some states, like Alabama, Delaware, and Tennessee, prohibit ex-felons from voting. And some, along with the federal government, prohibit them from keeping and bearing arms. But then we must ask, what is the difference between restricting the right to vote or the right to bear arms and restricting our precious right to free speech? Why are these laws considered ‘fair’ and constitutional and not North Carolina’s? Or are all of these restrictions unconstitutional? Some might argue that all of these restrictions have a basis in history and logic, and so they should be considered. Conversely, some say that these restrictions are too harsh and prison is enough punishment.
This is still a new and growing topic, so figuring out how to handle free speech on the internet may take some trial and error. But what must be kept in mind is that every situation is different, and one uniform law for all situations may not be the most effective