Packingham v. North Carolina


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            In 2008, North Carolina made it a felony for a registered sex offender to access a commercial social networking website where the offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal web pages. The statute’s provisions broadly applied to a wide variety of websites, including popular ones such as Facebook and Twitter.

            In 2002, Lester Gerard Packingham, then a 21-year-old college student, had sex with a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a child. As a consequence, the law required Packingham to register as a sex offender—a designation that can last for 30 years or more. As such, he was barred from accessing commercial social networking sites.

            In 2010, a state court dismissed a traffic ticket he had received. A happy Packingham logged onto Facebook and posted the following:

Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, no court cost, no nothing spent. . . . . . Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!

            A member of the Durham Police Department noticed the posting while investigating possible violations of the social media ban. Packingham was indicted, convicted, and given a suspended sentence. There was no evidence that he had contacted a minor or committed any other illegal act on the Internet. Packingham appealed, claiming the law violated the First Amendment because it was not narrowly tailored to serve the state’s legitimate interest in protecting minors from sexual abuse. The state intermediate court of appeals ruled in his favor, but the state supreme court reversed, concluding that the law was constitutional in all respects.


JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

A fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more. The Court has sought to protect the right to speak in this spatial context. A basic rule, for example, is that a street or a park is a quintessential forum for the exercise of First Amendment rights. See Ward vRock Against Racism (1989). Even in the modern era, these places are still essential venues for public gatherings to celebrate some views, to protest others, or simply to learn and inquire.

While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace—the “vast democratic forums of the Internet” in general, Reno vAmerican Civil Liberties Union (1997), and social media in particular. . . .

Social media offers “relatively unlimited, low-cost capacity for communication of all kinds.” Reno. On Facebook, for example, users can debate religion and politics with their friends and neighbors or share vacation photos. On LinkedIn, users can look for work, advertise for employees, or review tips on entrepreneurship. And on Twitter, users can petition their elected representatives and otherwise engage with them in a direct manner. Indeed, Governors in all 50 States and almost every Member of Congress have set up accounts for this purpose. In short, social media users employ these websites to engage in a wide array of protected First Amendment activity on topics “as diverse as human thought.” Reno.

The nature of a revolution in thought can be that, in its early stages, even its participants may be unaware of it. And when awareness comes, they still may be unable to know or foresee where its changes lead. So too here. While we now may be coming to the realization that the Cyber Age is a revolution of historic proportions, we cannot appreciate yet its full dimensions and vast potential to alter how we think, express ourselves, and define who we want to be. The forces and directions of the Internet are so new, so protean, and so far reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today might be obsolete tomorrow.

This case is one of the first this Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet. As a result, the Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.

This background informs the analysis of the North Carolina statute at issue. Even making the assumption that the statute is content neutral and thus subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision cannot stand. In order to survive intermediate scrutiny, a law must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.”McCullen vCoakley, (2014). In other words, the law must not “burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.” 

For centuries now, inventions heralded as advances in human progress have been exploited by the criminal mind. New technologies, all too soon, can become instruments used to commit serious crimes. . . . So it will be with the Internet and social media.

There is also no doubt that, as this Court has recognized, “[t]he sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime and an act repugnant to the moral instincts of a decent people.” Ashcroft vFree Speech Coalition (2002). And it is clear that a legislature “may pass valid laws to protect children” and other victims of sexual assault “from abuse.” The government, of course, need not simply stand by and allow these evils to occur. But the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” Stanley vGeorgia (1969).

It is necessary to make two assumptions to resolve this case. First, given the broad wording of the North Carolina statute at issue, it might well bar access not only to commonplace social media websites but also to websites as varied as,, and The Court need not decide the precise scope of the statute. It is enough to assume that the law applies (as the State concedes it does) to social networking sites “as commonly understood”—that is, websites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Second, this opinion should not be interpreted as barring a State from enacting more specific laws than the one at issue. Specific criminal acts are not protected speech even if speech is the means for their commission. Though the issue is not before the Court, it can be assumed 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. Specific laws of that type must be the State’s first resort to ward off the serious harm that sexual crimes inflict.

Even with these assumptions about the scope of the law and the State’s interest, the statute here enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens. Social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another about it on any subject that might come to mind. 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. These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard. They allow a person with an Internet connection to “become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.” Reno.

In sum, to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. 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 primary response from the State is that the law must be this broad to serve its preventative purpose of keeping convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. The State has not, however, met its burden to show that this sweeping law is necessary or legitimate to serve that purpose.

It is instructive that no case or holding of this Court has approved of a statute as broad in its reach. . . .

It is well established that, as a general rule, the Government “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.” Ashcroft vFree Speech Coalition [2002]. That is what North Carolina has done here. Its law must be held invalid.

The judgment of the North Carolina Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


JUSTICE ALITO, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and JUSTICE THOMAS join, concurring in the judgment.

The North Carolina statute at issue in this case was enacted to serve an interest of “surpassing importance.” New York vFerber (1982) —but it has a staggering reach. It makes it a felony for a registered sex offender simply to visit a vast array of websites, including many that appear to provide no realistic opportunity for communications that could facilitate the abuse of children. Because of the law’s extraordinary breadth, I agree with the Court that it violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

I cannot join the opinion of the Court, however, because of its undisciplined dicta. The Court is unable to resist musings that seem to equate the entirety of the internet with public streets and parks. And this language is bound to be interpreted by some to mean that the States are largely powerless to restrict even the most dangerous sexual predators from visiting any internet sites, including, for example, teenage dating sites and sites designed to permit minors to discuss personal problems with their peers. I am troubled by the implications of the Court’s unnecessary rhetoric. . . .

Repeat sex offenders pose an especially grave risk to children. “When convicted sex offenders reenter society, they are much more likely than any other type of offender to be rearrested for a new rape or sexual assault.” McKune [v. Lile (2002)]. . . .

Because protecting children from abuse is a compelling state interest and sex offenders can (and do) use the internet to engage in such abuse, it is legitimate and entirely reasonable for States to try to stop abuse from occurring before it happens.

It is not enough, however, that the law before us is designed to serve a compelling state interest; it also must not “burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.” Ward. The North Carolina law fails this requirement.

A straightforward reading of the text of [the law] compels the conclusion that it prohibits sex offenders from accessing an enormous number of websites. . . .

The fatal problem for [the law] is that its wide sweep precludes access to a large number of websites that are most unlikely to facilitate the commission of a sex crime against a child. A handful of examples illustrates this point.

[Justice Alito here points to, The Washington Post, and Web MD as sites that registered sex offenders under the North Carolina law must not access.]

As these examples illustrate, the North Carolina law has a very broad reach and covers websites that are ill suited for use in stalking or abusing children. The focus of the discussion on these sites—shopping, news, health—does not provide a convenient jumping off point for conversations that may lead to abuse. . . .

Placing this set of websites categorically off limits from registered sex offenders prohibits them from receiving or engaging in speech that the First Amendment protects and does not appreciably advance the State’s goal of protecting children from recidivist sex offenders. I am therefore compelled to conclude that, while the law before us addresses a critical problem, it sweeps far too broadly to satisfy the demands of the Free Speech Clause.

While I thus agree with the Court that the particular law at issue in this case violates the First Amendment, I am troubled by the Court’s loose rhetoric. After noting that “a street or a park is a quintessential forum for the exercise of First Amendment rights,” the Court states that “cyberspace” and “social media in particular” are now “the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views.” . . . The Court should be more attentive to the implications of its rhetoric for, contrary to the Court’s suggestion, there are important differences between cyberspace and the physical world.

I will mention a few that are relevant to internet use by sex offenders. First, it is easier for parents to monitor the physical locations that their children visit and the individuals with whom they speak in person than it is to monitor their internet use. Second, if a sex offender is seen approaching children or loitering in a place frequented by children, this conduct may be observed by parents, teachers, or others. Third, the internet offers an unprecedented degree of anonymity and easily permits a would-be molester to assume a false identity.

The Court is correct that we should be cautious in applying our free speech precedents to the internet. Cyberspace is different from the physical world, and if it is true, as the Court believes, that “we cannot appreciate yet” the “full dimensions and vast potential” of “the Cyber Age,” we should proceed circumspectly, taking one step at a time. It is regrettable that the Court has not heeded its own admonition of caution.