Packingham v. North Carolina

Facts of the Case

In 2002, petitioner Lester Gerard Packingham—then a 21-year-old college student—had sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a child. Because the crime qualified as an offense against a minor, petitioner was required to register as a sex offender. As a registered sex offender, petitioner was barred under

Question

Does a North Carolina law prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing various websites, where minors are known to be active and have accounts, regardless of whether or not the sex offender directly interacted with a minor, violate the First Amendment?

CONCLUSION

The North Carolina law prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing various websites, where minors are known to be active and have accounts, regardless of whether or not the sex offender directly interacted with a minor violates the First Amendment. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion of the 5-3 majority. The Court held that, in order to be valid under the First Amendment, a content-neutral regulation of speech must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest. In other words, the law cannot burden substantially more speech than necessary to advance the government’s legitimate interest. In this case, although the government has a legitimate interest in protecting children from abuse, this law too broadly restricted access to all sorts of websites. Even if it were limited only to social media websites, the law would still unconstitutionally restrict speech because of the vast number of functions that social media websites perform in the modern world. First Amendment jurisprudence has never allowed for such a broad regulation of speech, and similarly broad restrictions have been struck down. However, a state could accomplish the same goal by enacting a more narrowly written statute.Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment in which he argued that the majority opinion erred in equating the entire internet with a traditionally public forum instead of recognizing the importance of allowing states to regulate certain types of websites. The government certainly has a compelling interest in protecting children from potential sexual predation, and the internet is a place that allows sexual offenders to contact children in ways that they might not otherwise be able, so the government should be able to regulate sex offenders’ use of the internet to an extent. However, the North Carolina law at issue here went too far because it encompassed websites that were unlikely to facilitate a sex crime against a child. Because the North Carolina law prohibited more speech than necessary to further the government’s significant interest, it violated the First Amendment. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas joined in the opinion concurring in the judgment.Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the discussion or decision of this case.

Case Information

  • Citation: 582 US _ (2017)
  • Granted: Oct 28, 2016
  • Argued: Feb 27, 2017
  • Decided Jun 19, 2017