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Supreme Court Voids North Carolina Law Barring Sex Offenders from Facebook

by Derek Gilna

In a unanimous decision, on June 19, 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina statute that prohibits convicted sex offenders from accessing “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.” N.C. Gen Stat. Ann. §§ 14-202.5(a), (e).

While over 1,000 sex offenders in North Carolina had been prosecuted for violating the law, the Supreme Court found their access to such websites was protected under the First Amendment.

Lester Peckingham, a convicted sex offender, was arrested after he posted a joyous comment on his Facebook page concerning the dismissal of a traffic ticket he had received.

He was convicted of violating the statute that prohibits sex offenders from accessing social networking sites, including Facebook, and received a suspended sentence. There were no allegations that Peckingham ever had contact with a minor through the Internet or his Facebook page, or had violated any other state law.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Court, noted that the statute could not stand: “In order to survive intermediate scrutiny, a law must be ‘narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest....’ In other words, the law must not ‘burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.’”

There was no question, Justice Kennedy wrote, “that the First Amendment permits a State to enact specific, narrowly tailored laws that prohibit a sex offender from engaging in conduct that often presages a sexual crime, like contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about a minor.” But that was not the issue in this case.

Further, given the change in how information is accessed in today’s modern society, “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exer­cise of First Amendment rights,” according to the ruling. “It is unsettling to suggest that only a limited set of websites can be used even by persons who have completed their sentences. Even convicted criminals – and in some instances especially convicted criminals – might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, in particular if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.”

The Supreme Court added that, “By prohibiting sex offenders from using those websites, North Carolina with one broad stroke 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.”

The Court concluded that the statute had unconstitutionally infringed on Peckingham’s First Amendment rights, and therefore was invalid. The judgment was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

This decision calls into question laws in other states that prohibit convicted sex offenders from accessing online social networking sites. See: Peckingham v. North Carolina, U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 15-1194. 


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Related legal case

Peckingham v. North Carolina