While protecting vulnerable citizens like children from sex crimes is undoubtedly a top priority at the state and federal level, state laws walk a fine line between protecting citizens and violating the fundamental rights of sex offenders. Recently, a historic ruling defended sex offenders’ right to free speech in one of the first cases the United States Supreme Court has decided linking the First Amendment and the Internet.
Social media plays such a significant role in public discourse that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously in 2017 that states cannot ban sex offenders from using it. In Packingham v. North Carolina, the justices ruled that a North Carolina law which made it a felony for sex offenders to access websites like Facebook and LinkedIn violated their First Amendment rights. They acknowledged that social media is one of the primary ways people in modern society receive the news and other valuable information.
According to Justice Anthony Kennedy, barring access to social media altogether “is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.” In his opinion, he concluded that convicted criminals who wish to reintegrate into society might benefit from social media access more so than others, as it exposes them to the “world of ideas.” He likened communities created on social media to the “modern public square” and concluded that barring access to social media altogether prevents the user from engaging in legitimately exercising First Amendment rights. While not all the justices agreed that social media has become the new public square, they all found North Carolina’s law unconstitutional.
Packingham v. North Carolina
As a junior in college in Durham, North Carolina, Lester Packingham admitted to having sex with a 13 year-old-girl when he was 21 in a state where the age of consent is 16. While he was still 21 he became a convicted sex offender after pleading guilty to taking “indecent liberties with a child.” He served a 12-month sentence and two years of supervised probation before his next arrest in 2010 for the use of social media as a sex offender. Mr. Packingham praised God in a Facebook post for the dismissal of a speeding ticket he received. Up to that point, he had no further sex charges against him. Police even searched his home after they discovered the post and found no evidence that he was hurting children. Still, a judge placed Packingham on probation for committing a felony.
The state defended the decision, claiming that the social media ban prevented sexual predators from taking what some say is often the first step to sexually assaulting children; however, Packingham’s lawyer and others saw the statute as an infringement on his rights. According to an Internet scholar who provided insight on the case, North Carolina’s 30-year sex offender registry forces offenders like Packingham who are out of prison, no longer under supervised release, and are not repeat offenders to give up their First Amendment rights. This is especially harsh for offenders who are registered for minor crimes such as public urination.
The North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the sex offender ban on social media, finding that the website provision was a limitation on conduct rather than an impediment to free speech. The Court found that the the state had a vested interest in “forestalling the illicit lurking and contact of minors” by registered sex offenders and sustained Packinham’s conviction. When the case made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, they struck it down for being too broad. The law had blocked Packingham not only from using social sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but also websites like Amazon, WebMD, and NYTimes.com, which are unlikely to provide a sex offender with the means to facilitate the commission of a sex crime against a child. The ruling is of special significance because it is one of the first cases in which the high court addresses the role the Internet plays as a means for citizens to be aware of current events, participate in political discussion, find jobs, and exercise their right to free speech.
Let Us Help You Stay Off the Registry
The Supreme Court ruling is a considerable victory for sex offender rights in the U.S., but sex offenders still face many obstacles when trying to get back to a typical life after paying their debt to society. In Florida, a person who registers as a sex offender is a sex offender for life. Sex offenders face a particularly cruel justice system, which makes it especially important to work with an experienced sex crime defense lawyer who will aggressively fight to keep you off the sex offender registry.
Attorney Brian Gabriel has defended those accused of sex crimes in West Palm Beach for over 30 years with excellent results. He is a Top 100 Lawyer with the National Trial Lawyers and holds a favorable reputation among judges, prosecutors, and others in Palm Beach County legal circles. Call 561-622-5575 or contact us online for a free case review.