WASHINGTON — Social networking websites have become such an important source of information that even sex offenders should not be barred from social media, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday.
The justices said a North Carolina law that made it a felony for sex offenders to access sites such as Facebook, Snapchat and LinkedIn violated the First Amendment.
"To foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. "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."
It didn't help state officials that their case focused on Lester Packingham, whose sex crime in 2002 resulted only in two years of supervised probation, but who was arrested eight years later for celebrating the dismissal of a parking ticket with a Facebook post that began "Man God is Good!"
That appeared to go too far for the justices, several of whom noted during oral argument that social networking sites have become a major part of "the marketplace of ideas," in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's words.
"Increasingly, this is the way people get ... all information," Justice Elena Kagan said. "This is the way people structure their civic community life."
Although North Carolina's law goes further than most states, Packingham's victory represents a ringing defense of free speech rights for some of the nation's most reviled citizens — the estimated 850,000 registered sex offenders. Kennedy called the case "one of the first this court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet."
The state's senior deputy attorney general, Robert Montgomery, had likened the law to a 1992 Supreme Court decision that forbids politicking within 100 feet of a polling place. He noted that social networking sites are used to gain information in more than 80% of online sex crimes against children.
"These are some of the worst criminals, who have abused children and others," he said.
Thirteen states defended the North Carolina law in legal papers as a weapon against the illicit use of social networking sites, which they said are used in one-third of Internet-related sex crimes resulting in arrest.
North Carolina's law was passed in 2008 as a way to add "virtual" neighborhoods to the physical locations — such as schools and playgrounds — from which sex offenders are barred.
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During oral argument, only Justice Samuel Alito mounted much of a defense of the law, suggesting that it could be limited to core social networking sites rather than The New York Times or Betty Crocker. "There are still alternative channels," he said.
But David Goldberg of Stanford Law School's Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, who represented Packingham, said Twitter hosts about 500 million tweets a day, and Snapchat hosts 10 billion videos — statistics that are not replicable elsewhere.
Alito wrote separately Monday to say that the court's reasoning in the case went too far.
"The court is unable to resist musings that seem to equate the entirety of the Internet with public streets and parks," Alito said. "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."