Justice Breyer: You’re going to have everybody convicted . . . not being able . . . to discuss anything

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.


Here’s how other media outlets are covering oral arguments:
U.S. News & World Report

3 thoughts on “Justice Breyer: You’re going to have everybody convicted . . . not being able . . . to discuss anything

  • April 22, 2019 at 3:39 pm

    My reaction to the quoted title.
    A. NOT being able to ” comment. ”
    B. Forced to speak about email addresses & IDs via registration.

    Speech impacted on both ends of modality.
    Deprivation & suspension right to silence.
    That is unfettered and unconstitutional USES OF the machine databases as is continuous searches per GPS tracking. That the Agenda of big data!
    But how to convince the people?

  • April 13, 2017 at 10:53 am

    If the person does not have a conviction for online solicitation of a minor or child pornography using a computer there should not be any computer restrictions period. The pending Supreme court ruling should not have any retroactive implications to prior convictions of sex offenders that does not have any convictions to the above mentioned offenses. The first amendment is abridged when applying a chilling effect on freedom of associating or expression by any medium of communication.

    • April 13, 2017 at 8:35 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Anthony. The argument NCRSOL and NARSOL has made in our amicus brief is that there should be no exceptions at all. Once an individual has completed his sentencing obligations, his or her First Amendment rights should be fully restored. Whether or not the prior conviction involved a computer is irrelevant in our estimation. Once an exception is carved out for anyone, it’s merely a matter of swinging the door open a little wider, bit by bit.


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