Packingham v. North Carolina, 15–1194.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation198 L.Ed.2d 273,137 S.Ct. 1730
Docket NumberNo. 15–1194.,15–1194.
Parties Lester Gerard PACKINGHAM, Petitioner v. NORTH CAROLINA.
Decision Date19 June 2017

137 S.Ct. 1730
198 L.Ed.2d 273

Lester Gerard PACKINGHAM, Petitioner

No. 15–1194.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Feb. 27, 2017.
Decided June 19, 2017.

David T. Goldberg, for Petitioner.

Robert C. Montgomery, Raleigh, NC, for Respondent.

Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, Office of the Appellate Defender, Durham, NC, David T. Goldberg, Jeffrey L. Fisher, Pamela S. Karlan, Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Stanford, CA, for Petitioner.

Josh Stein, Attorney General of North Carolina, John F. Maddrey, Solicitor General of North Carolina, Robert C. Montgomery, Senior Deputy Attorney General, Daniel P. O'Brien, Special Deputy Attorney General, Anne Murray Middleton, Special Deputy Attorney General, North Carolina Department of Justice, Raleigh, NC, for Respondent.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 2008, North Carolina enacted a statute making it a felony for a registered sex offender to gain access to a number of websites, including commonplace social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. The question presented is whether that law is permissible under the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause, applicable to the States under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.



North Carolina law makes it a felony for a registered sex offender "to access a 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." N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 14–202.5(a), (e) (2015). A "commercial social networking Web site" is defined as a website that meets four criteria. First, it "[i]s operated by a person who derives revenue from membership fees, advertising, or other sources related to the operation of the

137 S.Ct. 1734

Web site." § 14–202.5(b). Second, it "[f]acilitates the social introduction between two or more persons for the purposes of friendship, meeting other persons, or information exchanges." Ibid. Third, it "[a]llows users to create Web pages or personal profiles that contain information such as the name or nickname of the user, photographs placed on the personal Web page by the user, other personal information about the user, and links to other personal Web pages on the commercial social networking Web site of friends or associates of the user that may be accessed by other users or visitors to the Web site." Ibid. And fourth, it "[p]rovides users or visitors ... mechanisms to communicate with other users, such as a message board, chat room, electronic mail, or instant messenger." Ibid.

The statute includes two express exemptions. The statutory bar does not extend to websites that "[p]rovid[e] only one of the following discrete services: photo-sharing, electronic mail, instant messenger, or chat room or message board platform." § 14–202.5(c)(1). The law also does not encompass websites that have as their "primary purpose the facilitation of commercial transactions involving goods or services between [their] members or visitors." § 14–202.5(c)(2).

According to sources cited to the Court, § 14–202.5 applies to about 20,000 people in North Carolina and the State has prosecuted over 1,000 people for violating it. Brief for Petitioner 6–8.


In 2002, petitioner 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. Because this crime qualifies as "an offense against a minor," petitioner was required to register as a sex offender—a status that can endure for 30 years or more. See § 14–208.6A; see § 14–208.7(a). As a registered sex offender, petitioner was barred under § 14–202.5 from gaining access to commercial social networking sites.

In 2010, a state court dismissed a traffic ticket against petitioner. In response, he logged on to and posted the following statement on his personal profile:

"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!" App. 136.

At the time, a member of the Durham Police Department was investigating registered sex offenders who were thought to be violating § 14–202.5. The officer noticed that a " ‘J.R. Gerrard’ " had posted the statement quoted above. 368 N.C. 380, 381, 777 S.E.2d 738, 742 (2015). By checking court records, the officer discovered that a traffic citation for petitioner had been dismissed around the time of the post. Evidence obtained by search warrant confirmed the officer's suspicions that petitioner was J.R. Gerrard.

Petitioner was indicted by a grand jury for violating § 14–202.5. The trial court denied his motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the charge against him violated the First Amendment. Petitioner was ultimately convicted and given a suspended prison sentence. At no point during trial or sentencing did the State allege that petitioner contacted a minor—or committed any other illicit act—on the Internet.

Petitioner appealed to the Court of Appeals of North Carolina. That court struck down § 14–202.5 on First Amendment grounds, explaining that the law is not narrowly tailored to serve the State's

137 S.Ct. 1735

legitimate interest in protecting minors from sexual abuse. 229 N.C.App. 293, 304, 748 S.E.2d 146, 154 (2013). Rather, the law "arbitrarily burdens all registered sex offenders by preventing a wide range of communication and expressive activity unrelated to achieving its purported goal." Ibid. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the law is "constitutional in all respects." 368 N.C., at 381, 777 S.E.2d, at 741. Among other things, the court explained that the law is "carefully tailored ... to prohibit registered sex offenders from accessing only those Web sites that allow them the opportunity to gather information about minors." Id., at 389, 777 S.E.2d, at 747. The court also held that the law leaves open adequate alternative means of communication because it permits petitioner to gain access to websites that the court believed perform the "same or similar" functions as social media, such as the Paula Deen Network and the website for the local NBC affiliate. Id., at 390, 777 S.E.2d, at 747. Two justices dissented. They stated that the law impermissibly "creates a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth and extends well beyond the evils the State seeks to combat." Id., at 401, 777 S.E.2d, at 754 (opinion of Hudson, J.) (alteration, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court granted certiorari, 580 U.S. ––––, 137 S.Ct. 368, 196 L.Ed.2d 283 (2016), and now reverses.


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 v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 796, 109 S.Ct. 2746, 105 L.Ed.2d 661 (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 v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844, 868, 117 S.Ct. 2329, 138 L.Ed.2d 874 (1997), and social media in particular. Seven in ten American adults use at least one Internet social networking service. Brief for Electronic Frontier Foundation et al. as Amici Curiae 5–6. One of the most popular of these sites is Facebook, the site used by petitioner leading to his conviction in this case. According to sources cited to the Court in this case, Facebook has 1.79 billion active users. Id., at 6. This is about three times the population of North America.

Social media offers "relatively unlimited, low-cost capacity for communication of all kinds." Reno, supra, at 870, 117 S.Ct. 2329. 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. See Brief for Electronic Frontier Foundation 15–16. In short, social media users employ these websites to engage in a wide array of protected First

137 S.Ct. 1736

Amendment activity on topics "as diverse as human thought." Reno, supra, at 870, 117 S.Ct. 2329 (internal quotation marks omitted).

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. Cf....

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