Supreme Court justices defend social media, even for sex offenders
N.C. law may violate First Amendment
“Increasingly, this is the way people get ... all information. This is the way people structure their civic community life.” Justice Elena Kagan on the role of social media
The Supreme Court argued Monday that social networking websites have become such an important source of information, including President Trump’s daily tweets, that even sex offenders should not be barred from social media.
Displaying their familiarity during oral arguments with such platforms as Facebook, Snapchat and LinkedIn, several justices said a North Carolina law that makes it a felony for sex offenders to access them appeared to violate the First Amendment.
It didn’t help state officials that their case focused on Lester Packingham, whose sex crime in 2002 resulted in only two years of supervised probation but who was arrested eight years later for celebrating the dismissal of a parking ticket with a Facebook post that began “Man God is Good!”
That appeared to go too far for at least five of the court’s eight justices, who noted that social networking sites have become a major part of “the marketplace of ideas,” in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’s words.
“Increasingly, this is the way people get ... all information,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “This is the way people structure their civic community life.”
Although North Carolina’s law goes further than most states, a victory for Packingham would represent a ringing defense of free speech rights for some of the nation’s most reviled citizens — about 850,000 registered sex offenders.
The state’s senior deputy attorney general, Robert Montgomery, likened the law to a Supreme Court decision that forbids politicking within 100 yards of a polling place.
“These are some of the worst criminals, who have abused children and others,” he said.
Thirteen states defended the North Carolina law in legal papers as a weapon against the illicit use of social networking sites, which they said are used in onethird of Internet-related sex crimes resulting in arrest.
“There’s a concern here for the safety of children,” Ginsburg acknowledged as some of her colleagues — notably Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer — searched for a more limited way in which states could protect victims without infringing on basic free speech rights.
They found it difficult to defend North Carolina’s law, passed in 2008 as a way to add “virtual” neighborhoods to the physical locations — such as schools and playgrounds — from which sex offenders are barred.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites offer a range of services beyond social networking.
Kagan said the sites are an important channel for political information and conversation, including about the president’s proclivity for tweeting newsworthy musings.