Supreme Court announces broad protections for Internet-surfing rights. Even for sex offenders.

Lester Gerard Packingham was forced to register as a sex offender following a guilty plea involving charges relating to a 13-year-old girl. As part of that conviction, he became subject to a North Carolina law which forbade him from accessing any “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.” And while we can bore deeply into the details, suffice it to say that such sites are basically defined as the ones where you can create a personal page and communicate with others.

Undaunted, Packingham set up a Facebook page using a pseudonym. In 2010, he went onto the site to exclaim “Man God is Good!” after he had a traffic ticket dismissed … and the local police cross-referenced the date with court actions and, eventually, the folks in the crime lab figured

it was Packingham. He disputed the charges, arguing that the law was unconstitutionally broad.

Today, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that North Carolina had gone too far. Basically, Justice Kennedy wrote for a five-Justice majority, The Internet Is Important, and this law forbids too much involvement in modern society:

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.”

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.

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