In a ruling handed down on Monday June 19, the Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina law that prohibited a convicted sex offender from logging into social media sites, in order to restrict access to minors.
The case, Packingham vs North Carolina, was decided unanimously by the Court, with Justice Kennedy writing the opinion. While the Court was in agreement on the result, the rhetoric used by Kennedy in the opinion goes further than merely striking down the law, but seems to suggest that there is a constitutional right to access social media sites on the Internet, even fully for convicted sex offenders.
As The Washington Times reports, Kennedy equivocated the Internet to physical places such as community parks or streets of previous days.
“Social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another about it on any subject that might come to mind,” he wrote. “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.”
Other justices, writing concurring opinions, expressed a great deal of concern over this reasoning and explanation. Justice Alito wrote strongly about his concerns:
“The Court is unable to resist musings that seem to equate the entirety of the internet with public streets and parks,” he wrote, warning of unintended consequences.
“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,” Justice Alito said. “I am troubled by the implications of the Court’s unnecessary rhetoric.”
Alito makes an important point here; the States really should not be prohibited from protecting children from predators online, which is what the decision appears to be doing, in its essence.
The government does have a compelling interest in ensuring that sexual predators do not have easy access to potential victims, especially minors. There are very few times I will disagree with a restriction on freedom, but when dealing with someone who has been convicted of a heinous sexual crime against a minor, the nature of the game changes.
This is not merely someone who robbed a 7/11 during a tough financial time. This is someone who preyed upon a child and abused that child in a sexual way, causing immense damage to that child’s entire life. The wounds of a robbery are much more easily overcome than the wounds from a sexual predator, especially when the victim is a child.
What Kennedy’s logic seems to suggest is that there is an unlimited Constitutional right for all individuals to access the Internet without regard for a criminal record, even a sexually based criminal record.
If you’re not a convicted sex offender, the government has no need or reason to limit your access to the Internet. Your access to the Internet should be unrestricted. But saying the same of a convicted sexual predator? That’s pushing a line.
Kennedy crossed that line here. The question is now what can the states do to protect children from predators online after this ruling?