U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment rights and social media

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the intersection of the First Amendment with social media in Packinham v. North Carolina, No. 151194. (Online: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-1194_08l1.pdf ).

The court struck down a North Carolina criminal statute on First Amendment grounds. The law provided that registered sex offenders who used social media sites that could be accessed by children could be convicted of a felony. Although the majority's holding itself was notable, even more interesting and groundbreaking was the language used by the court in reaching its decision.

At the outset, the majority confirmed the far-reaching impact of the internet and social media on our society, and importantly acknowledged that when issuing rulings related to technology, courts must understand that it is ever advancing and always changing: "While we now may be coming to the realization that the Cyber Age is a revolution of historic proportions, we cannot appreciate yet its full dimensions and vast potential to alter how we think, express ourselves, and define who we want to be. The forces and directions of the Internet are so new, so protean, and so far reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today might be obsolete tomorrow."

Next, the majority turned to social media and noted the potential it has to amplify each and every person's message, allowing everyone an opportunity to be heard. "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.'"

The majority then engaged in what I consider to be the hallmark of every well-decided opinion involving issues related to internet activities: analogized the online conduct to similar offline conduct. The majority wisely explained: "The better analogy to this case is Board of Airport Comm'rs of Los Angeles v. Jews for Jesus, Inc., 482 U. S. 569 (1987), where the Court struck down an ordinance prohibiting any 'First Amendment activities' at Los Angeles International Airport because the ordinance covered all manner of protected, nondisruptive behavior including 'talking and reading, or the wearing of campaign buttons or symbolic clothing,' id., at 571, 575. If a law prohibiting 'all protected expression' at a single airport is not constitutional, id., at 574 (emphasis deleted), it follows with even greater force that the State may not enact this complete bar to the exercise of First Amendment rights on websites integral to the fabric of our modern society and culture."

In comparison, the dissent's position was a great example of the common knee-jerk reaction to new technologies sometimes shown by courts and ethics bars across the country, wherein the dissent exhibited a reluctance to adapt to the changing times: "Cyberspace is different from the physical world, and if it is true, as the Court believes, that 'we cannot appreciate yet' the 'full dimensions and vast potential' of 'the Cyber Age,' ibid., we should proceed circumspectly, taking one step at a time."

Interestingly, this reticence toward embracing new technologies that was expressed by the dissenting justices-Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Thomas and Justice Alito-is rarely present when those same justices apply emerging technologies to limit constitutional rights, rather than expand them. For example, no such reluctance has been shown when these same justices diminish the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens, whether it's permitting the use of technology to enhance the ability of law enforcement to snoop on U.S. citizens or granting law enforcement unfettered investigational access to data stored online. These countervailing approaches to technology by the more conservative members of the court represent a strange, but not entirely surprising, contradiction of ideology, and it's a trend that I don't expect will change anytime soon.


Nicole Black is a director at MyCase.com, a cloud-based law practice management platform. She is also of counsel to Fiandach & Fiandach in Rochester and is a GigaOM Pro analyst. She is the author of the ABA book "Cloud Computing for Lawyers," coauthors the ABA book "Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier," and co-authors "Criminal Law in New York," a West-Thomson treatise. She speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes three legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.

Published: Tue, Jul 11, 2017