In 2010, Lester Packingham was arrested for thanking Jesus. That’s not a crime; the problem was Packingham posting it on Facebook. As a registered sex offender, the North Carolina man was in violation of a state law that makes it a felony for sex offenders to “access” many social media sites.
Packingham was convicted, but soon appealed, arguing that the law violates his First Amendment right to free speech. On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments debating whether that’s true.
On April 27, 2010, Packingham learned that a traffic ticket of his had been dismissed, and he went to Facebook to share the good news, posting, “No fine, No court costs, no nothing spent….Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!”
A higher power might have taken an interest in dismissing Packingham’s speeding ticket, but someone else was interested in his Facebook post: a Durham, N.C., police officer. The officer arrested Packingham, as a 2008 state law bans sex offenders from using “commercial social networking Web site[s]” if they “know” that minors can access it. The law has been used to convict more than 1,000 people.
Opponents of the law, which includes the ACLU, say it’s too broad. Besides restricting offenders’ ability to access social media, the North Carolina law can also keep them off websites like Youtube and nytimes.com, since those sites doesn’t require users to verify that they’re adults, according to a petition filed to the Supreme Court.
“Everyday Americans understand that social media — which includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram — are absolutely central to their daily life and how the First Amendment is exercised in America today,” David Goldberg, one of Packingham’s attorneys, told CBS.
There’s no evidence that Packingham used his access to these sites to communicate with minors or to post anything inappropriate, his lawyers say. Packingham is registered as a sex offender because, at 21, he pled guilty to “taking indecent liberties” with a 13-year-old girl he claims to have been dating, according to NPR. Packingham says he didn’t know how young she was.
Yet North Carolina’s lawyers argue that protecting children from online sexual predators is more important, and more difficult, than ever. “Existing efforts at addressing sexual predation of children were failing,” argues a brief filed to the Supreme Court. But this law “bars offenders from taking what is often the critical first step in the sexual assault of a child. It allows law enforcement to stop the activity before a child is actually harmed.”