In Packingham v. North Carolina the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a North Carolina law making it a felony for a registered sex offender to access social networking sites where minors can create profiles violates the First Amendment Free Speech Clause. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing for the opposite result.
Lester Packingham was charged with violating the North Carolina statute because he praised God on Facebook when a parking ticket was dismissed.
This case may not see particularly relevant to local governments. But, if a statute (or ordinance) limits speech based on content, it is subject to strict (nearly always fatal) scrutiny. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona (2015), the Supreme Court held that the definition of content-based is very broad.
The SLLC amicus brief argued, among other things, that the North Carolina law isn’t content-based, contrary to the opinion of a dissenting North Carolina Supreme Court judge. A conviction under the statute does not turn on the content of the speech; it turns on whether sex offenders have accessed websites where minors can maintain profiles.
The Supreme Court assumed the statute was content-neutral but held that it is too broad to withstand even less rigorous intermediate scrutiny. So, practically speaking, the Supreme Court didn’t expand or clarify the definition of content-based in Packingham. In an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Court explained why this law is too broad. “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 assumed sex offenders would not be able to use very common social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The Court also stated that its opinion “should not be interpreted as barring a State from enacting more specific laws than the one at issue.” Finally, the Court noted that it has never approved a statute “as broad in its reach” as this one.
John Neiman and Braxton Thrash of Maynard Cooper & Gale wrote the SLLC amicus brief which was joined by the Council of State Governments, the International City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.
Author: Lisa Soronen
State & Local Legal Center