Supreme Court justices appear skeptical of law barring sex offenders from social media

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Several U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday appeared to side with a North Carolina man who was convicted for violating a ban on social media use by registered sex offenders.

Several justices raised questions during the oral arguments (PDF) about the law’s impact on First Amendment rights, report the New York Times, USA Today, SCOTUSblog and Law.com (sub. req.).

“During a lively oral argument,” Law.com reports, “U.S. Supreme Court justices discussed social media with the same respect usually reserved for colonial town criers and broadsheet newspapers that used to be the main source of news for Americans.”

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was among the justices who linked social media sites to the public square. If he is on board with the court’s liberals, the law might be struck down, according to SCOTUSblog.

The North Carolina law bans convicted sex offenders from using commercial websites that allow communication among users, unless those websites bar use by minors. Lester Packingham of Durham was convicted of violating the ban because of his Facebook post that declared “Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!” to celebrate dismissal of a traffic ticket. Packingham was a registered sex offender because of a 2002 guilty plea to having sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl when he was 21.

Packingham’s lawyer, David Goldberg, argued the North Carolina law bans “vast swaths of core First Amendment activity” that have no link the state’s aim of preventing access to social media sites in which minors could be targeted.

Justice Elena Kagan was “perhaps the most vocal opponent of the law,” according to the SCOTUSblog account. She said sites such as Facebook and Twitter were “incredibly important parts” of the country’s political and religious culture.

The only justice who “mounted much of a defense of the law” was Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., according to USA Today. He suggested the law could be upheld if it were interpreted to ban access to “core social networking sites” such as Facebook.

The case is Packingham v. North Carolina.




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