On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina law that made it a felony for registered sex offenders to use Facebook and other social media sites.
It’s a monumental decision — one of the first to grapple with the complex relationship between the internet and the First Amendment.
It all began with a humble-brag
Back in 2010, a North Carolina police officer came across a Facebook post by Lester Packingham, Jr., a convicted sex offender. In the post, Packingham boasted of beating a parking ticket in traffic court.
A law in North Carolina at the time stated it was a felony for sex offenders to use the site, and Packingham was swiftly arrested.
But the sex offender challenged his arrest as unconstitutional, and the case (Packingham v. North Carolina) eventually made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, where they ruled in Packingham’s favor.
Ever hear of a little thing called the First Amendment?
Justice Anthony Kennedy determined the ban to be a breach of First Amendment rights, stating convicted criminals should be able to access “the world of ideas” offered by social media.
The Court concluded that the government “can’t uniformly bar people from using expansive chunks of the internet.”
But tech companies sure can!
Despite the ruling, the social networks still have complete power to ban whoever they want — so long as it isn’t on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
In fact, Facebook already bans convicted sex offenders like Packingham, and, if they wished to, could ban all convicted criminals.
It’s a reminder that, for better or worse, private businesses sometimes wield more decision-making power than the courts do in such matters.