By Sandy . . . “There are three principal features of North Carolina’s law that make it a stark abridgment of the Freedom of Speech.” These words, spoken by attorney David Goldberg, opened the oral arguments of the petitioner Lester Packingham to the Supreme Court today, Monday, February 27.
At 21, Mr. Packingham was convicted of taking indecent liberties with a minor—a non-contact offense in North Carolina. As a result he was placed on North Carolina’s sex offender registry and subjected to the state’s prohibition against having or accessing an account on any online platform that allowed exchange of ideas and on which minors were allowed to create and maintain accounts.
In 2010, Packingham violated this law when he took to Facebook to claim, “God is good,” over having a traffic ticket dismissed. As a result he was arrested and charged, not for what he said but for where he said it. He and his attorneys have fought the charges for the past six years, a fight that culminated in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the heart of the argument is the First Amendment right to free speech. Packingham has satisfied all court-imposed requirements and has successfully completed his criminal sentence. He is under no state or federal supervision. He has not re-offended or come under scrutiny for any illegal activity except using Facebook to express his joy about the outcome of a traffic ticket.
The National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws (NARSOL) and North Carolina RSOL supported Packingham’s First Amendment claims by way of an amicus brief filed on his behalf. We contend, as do Mr. Packingham and his attorneys, that depriving over 17,000 North Carolina citizens of social media access just because they are on the sex offender registry is an egregious abuse of the state’s power and does virtually nothing to address the state’s compelling interest in protecting minors.
The ban applies to all registrants regardless of whether or not their original offenses involved a minor, whether or not those offenses involved Internet use, or whether the persons were engaging in “stalking” or “grooming” behavior towards a minor. Such a ban makes illegal perfectly innocent and legal activities such as participating in or even following political discussions on Twitter, advertising one’s home business on Facebook, or commenting on a variety of opinion pieces on almost all online media comment platforms.
If the state of North Carolina is convinced that its youth are at risk from citizens on the registry due to contact through online activities, a ban on such activities can surely be tailored more narrowly to address real criminal conduct rather than cutting such a wide swath through the heart of the First Amendment.