Packingham v. North Carolina

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Packingham v. North Carolina
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued February 27, 2017
Decided June 19, 2017
Full case nameLester Gerard Packingham, Petitioner v. North Carolina
Docket no.15–1194
Citations582 U.S. ___ (more)
137 S. Ct. 1730; 198 L. Ed. 2d 273
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
PriorState v. Packingham, 368 N.C. 380, 777 S.E.2d 738 (2015); cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 368 (2016).
A statute prohibiting sex offenders from accessing social media websites is unconstitutional.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Anthony Kennedy · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Samuel Alito · Sonia Sotomayor
Elena Kagan · Neil Gorsuch
Case opinions
MajorityKennedy, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan
ConcurrenceAlito, joined by Roberts, Thomas
Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I
North Carolina G.S. 27A-14-202.5 and 208.5
Sexually violent predator laws
Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act
Sex offender registries in the United States

Packingham v. North Carolina, 582 U.S. ___ (2017), is a United States Supreme Court decision holding that the government may not prevent convicted criminals from using the internet. Specifically, Packingham held that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the government from banning sex offenders from social media websites, and the court accordingly struck down a North Carolina statute that prohibited sex offenders from using these websites. It did not impose any restrictions on businesses: the state may not ban a sex offender from Facebook, but Facebook still can.

The case arose following the 2010 arrest of Lester Gerard Packingham, previously convicted of inappropriate sexual behavior with a minor in 2002 but having served his criminal punishment, for posting to Facebook to comment favorably on a recent traffic court experience in 2010. Packingham was charged under North Carolina's statute that prevented registered sex offenders from using social media sites. Challenged in state courts, Packingham argued that the statute violated his First Amendment rights and the ability to use such sites for daily use in the dot-com era, and eventually sought the United States Supreme Court to hear the case, asking the Court to use strict scrutiny when looking at First Amendment rights violations under this law.

In a unanimous judgment issued in June 2017, the Court ruled the North Carolina statute unconstitutional, and that social media — defined broadly enough to include Facebook,, the Washington Post, and WebMD — is considered a "protected space" under the First Amendment for lawful speech.[1] The Court offered that North Carolina could protect children through less restrictive means, such as prohibiting "conduct that often presages a sexual crime, like contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about a minor".[2]


Lester Gerard Packingham was convicted of taking “indecent liberties”[3] with a minor in 2002. He was 21 years old and a college junior in Durham, North Carolina, where the age of consent is 16 years old.[3] A North Carolina court sentenced him to the standard 12 months in prison with 24 months of supervised release. He was given no other special instructions on his behavior outside of prison other than “remain away from the minor”.[3] In 2010 Packingham was arrested when authorities discovered a post on his Facebook profile “thanking God for having his parking ticket dismissed” Packingham was arrested for violating North Carolina’s law which bars registered sex offenders from accessing social media and alike sites.

Lower court rulings[edit]

Packingham argued that the social media law violated his First Amendment rights and demanded that it be struck down as unconstitutional. A North Carolina Superior Court judge denied his motion, ruling that Packingham's First Amendment rights were not being infringed in this case due to the state's “interest in the protection of minors”, and he was convicted.[4] Packingham appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which reversed the decision made by the trial court, finding that the website provision was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The state of North Carolina appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, who reversed the decision made by the Appeals Court, finding that it was a “limitation on conduct” and did not impede any free speech. The North Carolina Supreme Court found that the state had a vested interest in “forestalling the illicit lurking and contact of minors” by registered sex offenders and potential future victims, and sustained Packingham's conviction under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-202.5, which made it a felony for any person on the State's registry of sex offenders to "access" a wide array of websites-including Facebook, YouTube, and[5][6]

Arguments in the Supreme Court[edit]

Packingham appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. The federal government also filed a brief recommending that the Supreme Court grant the writ of certiorari, arguing that the North Carolina Supreme Court incorrectly decided the case in favor of the respondents. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on October 28, 2016. The Court agreed to hear arguments for the case on December 22, 2016, and set the date for arguments as February 27, 2017. Amicus briefs in support of Packingham were filed by the libertarian Cato Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union. The North Carolina Supreme Court filed a brief supporting the respondents, urging the importance of protecting minors in the Internet age from being stalked online. The oral argument took place on February 27, 2017.[7]

Packingham’s lawyer, David T. Goldberg, argued that the law banned “vast swaths of First Amendment activity”, went too far in restricting what internet sites could be accessed, and forbade use of the Internet in general. The law targeted speech on some of the platforms that Americans use most often, Goldberg noted, and that under the law Packingham could not even use Twitter to read the myriad messages discussing his own case. He further noted that the law imposes punishment without regard to whether the offender actually did anything wrong.[8] North Carolina’s senior deputy Attorney General, Robert C. Montgomery, argued for the state. Montgomery claimed communication through social media sites is a “crucial channel”.[8]

Justice Sotomayor asked Montgomery to provide evidence as to the claim that by giving Packingham Internet privileges, he would commit another crime. Justice Stephen Breyer agreed, stating “It seems to be well-settled law that the state can’t (bar usage) unless there is a 'clear and present danger.' "[8]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court delivered judgment in favor of the accused, unanimously voting to reverse the state court.[9][10] Justice Kennedy, in an opinion joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, explained the decision: "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." He continued 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." Citing Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, Kennedy also wrote: "It is well established that, as a general rule, the Government 'may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech'."

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Roberts and Thomas. While Alito agreed with Kennedy's opinion, he noted that there are reasonable scenarios where legal bans for sex offenders can be placed, such as for sites targeted for teenagers.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lecher, Colin (June 19, 2017). "Supreme Court strikes down North Carolina law banning sex offenders from social media". The Verge. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  2. ^ Packingham v. North Carolina, slip op. at 7.
  3. ^ a b c "Body Politic : Packingham v. North Carolina". Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  4. ^ Grossman, Perry (2017-03-01). "Packingham v. North Carolina is a First Amendment test case in the age of Trump". Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  5. ^ "G.S. 14-202.5". Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  6. ^ Nicholas Halliburton (2017-02-27). "Packingham v. North Carolina | LII / Legal Information Institute". Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  7. ^ Liptak, Adam (28 February 2017). "A Constitutional Right to Facebook and Twitter? Supreme Court Weighs In". The New York Times. p. A9. Retrieved 5 December 2017.
  8. ^ a b c "Argument analysis: Justices skeptical about social media restrictions for sex offenders". 2017-02-27. Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  9. ^ The Supreme Court, 2016 Term — Leading Cases, 131 Harv. L. Rev. 233 (2017).
  10. ^ David T. Goldberg and Emily R. Zhang, Our Fellow American, the Registered Sex Offender, 2016–2017 Cato Sup. Ct. Rev. 59 (2017).

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