Social media use is a constitutional right — even for sex offenders, the Supreme Court decided Monday.
The justices unanimously ruled that it’s fine for convicted sex offenders to use social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and LinkedIn, as long as they aren’t breaking the law while doing so.
This is one of the Supreme Court’s few cases so far about the constitutionality of social media, and one of the few major decisions to say online access is a basic American right.
The decision struck down a North Carolina law that banned sex offenders from logging onto social media. In its opinion, the court said social media had become such an essential part of life that it is unconstitutional to ban an entire group of people from it without criminal cause.
“With one broad stroke, North Carolina bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s opinion.
“Foreclosing access to social media altogether thus prevents users from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. Even convicted criminals — and in some instances especially convicted criminals — might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, particularly if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.”
The case originated with Lester Packingham, a sex offender with a statutory rape conviction who was arrested in 2010 for posting on Facebook.
After getting a traffic ticket dismissed, Packingham wrote on Facebook: “No fine, no court costs, no nothing spent….Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!”
Under North Carolina law, it is a felony for sex offenders to use “commercial social networking” sites if they “knew” people under 18 can access them. So Packingham’s post landed him in handcuffs.
Packingham appealed his punishment, saying the state law from 2008 violated his First Amendment rights.
The law required no proof that sex offenders had any illegal intent online before they were arrested. It also, ironically, allowed them to still use chatrooms and photo-sharing sites.
This was the Supreme Court’s second sweeping ruling on Monday protecting First Amendments rights.
Another decision, centered on an Asian-American rock band called The Slants, struck down a federal law banning trademarks for offensive speech.