In Packingham v. North Carolina, the court struck down a North Carolina law that prohibited registered sex offenders from visiting social-networking websites that allow minors to become members of those websites or to create personal web pages. This would include sites like Facebook, Twitter, WebMD and The New York Times — online locations visited regularly by billions of people.
One of those people was Lester Gerard Packingham, who was prosecuted under the law after he posted a Facebook message in 2010 giving thanks for the dismissal of a parking ticket. Mr. Packingham had been convicted eight years earlier for having sex with a minor. The state did not argue that he had used Facebook or any other site to seek out sex with minors or for any illegal activity at all; the fact that he’d visited a prohibited site as a registered sex offender was enough to convict him.
The justices rightly reversed the State Supreme Court’s decision upholding that conviction. States have a compelling interest in protecting children from sexual abuse, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his opinion for the majority, but the law went far beyond what was needed to achieve that goal — barring 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.”
GERRYMANDERING On Monday the court also agreed to hear a case involving partisan gerrymandering, or the skewed drawing of legislative district lines to benefit one political party. The court’s decision, which would be issued in the first half of 2018, could transform American politics.
The case comes from Wisconsin, where Republicans won control of the state government in 2010, just in time to draw new maps following the decennial census. They were extremely efficient: In 2012, Republican assembly candidates received less than half the statewide vote and yet won 60 of 99 assembly seats. They took even more seats in 2014, while winning just a bare majority of the vote.
This distortion of the voters’ will is one of the oldest and dirtiest practices in American politics, and while both major parties are guilty of it, the benefits over the past decade have flowed overwhelmingly to Republicans.
The court has agreed that partisan gerrymandering could in theory become so extreme that it violates the Constitution, but it has never settled on who should make that determination or on what standards to use.
In the meantime, because the court voted to stay the lower-court decision ordering Wisconsin to redraw its district lines before the 2018 elections, the state’s Republican-friendly maps are likely to remain for at least one more cycle. The stay also raises doubts about whether a majority believes the court should ever resolve partisan gerrymandering claims. If not, voters will remain at the mercy of self-interested politicians, with no help in sight.
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