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On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Packingham v. North Carolina. Lester Packingham was convicted in 2002 of taking “indecent liberties” with a minor in violation of North Carolina law, and sentenced to prison time followed by supervised release. In 2010, he was arrested after authorities came across a post on his Facebook profile--which he had set up using an alias--in which he thanked God for having a parking ticket dismissed. Packingham was charged with, and convicted of, violating a North Carolina law that restricted the access of convicted sex offenders to “commercial social networking” websites.
Packingham challenged his conviction on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the North Carolina statute unlawfully restricted his freedom of speech and association, but the Supreme Court of North Carolina ultimately rejected his claim. The website access restriction, the Court concluded, was a content-neutral, conduct-based regulation that only incidentally burdened Packingham’s speech, was narrowly tailored to serve a substantial governmental interest, and left open ample alternative channels of communication.
By a vote of 8-0, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of North Carolina and remanded the case. In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that the North Carolina statute, which makes it a felony for a registered sex offender "to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages,” impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas joined. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
To discuss the case, we have Ilya Shapiro, who is Senior Fellow in Constitutional Law at the Cato Institute.