March 30, 2017
On February 27, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Packingham v. North Carolina. Lester Packingham was convicted in 2002 of taking “indecent liberties” with a minor in violation of North Carolina law, and sentenced to prison time followed by supervised release. In 2010, he was arrested after authorities came across a post on his Facebook profile--which he had set up using an alias--in which he thanked God for having a parking ticket dismissed. Packingham was charged with, and convicted of, violating a North Carolina law that restricted the access of convicted sex offenders to “commercial social networking” websites.
Packingham challenged his conviction on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the North Carolina statute unlawfully restricted his freedom of speech and association, but the Supreme Court of North Carolina ultimately rejected his claim. The website access restriction, the Court concluded, was a content-neutral, conduct-based regulation that only incidentally burdened Packingham’s speech, was narrowly tailored to serve a substantial governmental interest, and left open ample alternative channels of communication.
The question before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether, under the Court’s First Amendment precedents, a law that makes it a felony for any person on the state's registry of former sex offenders to “access” a website that enables communication, expression, and the exchange of information among users--if the site is “know[n]” to allow minors to have accounts--is permissible on its face and as applied to Packingham.
To discuss the case, we have Ilya Shapiro, who is Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute.