In 2010, a Durham man named Lester Gerard Packingham got a traffic ticket dismissed. As one does, he went on Facebook to celebrate: "Man God is Good!" he wrote under his profile name, J.r. Gerrard. "How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started. No fine. No court cost, no nothing spent ... Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks, JESUS!"
The almighty may have been kind that day, but the Durham Police Department was not. A corporal named Brian Schnee saw the post and pieced together J.r. Gerrard's real identity—Lester Packingham, who as a twenty-one-year-old in 2002 had sex with a thirteen-year-old. This was a problem for Packingham because, in 2008, the General Assembly had made it a felony for registered sex offenders to access social media sites.
Packingham was convicted in 2012—one of more than a thousand people the state prosecuted under the law—and slapped with a suspended sentence. He appealed. The N.C. Court of Appeals sided with him. The N.C. Supreme Court did not.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its verdict. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that North Carolina's law "impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment."
"Social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another on any subject that might come to mind," the court ruled. "With one broad stroke, North Carolina bars 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."
North Carolina's law has "had the same impact as on anybody who has tried to be a part of society and try to make something of their lives and not be isolated by society," says Packingham attorney Glenn Gerding. "It restricts people from doing the basic things we take for granted today, like using social media to get news or keep up with family members and friends."
Gerding says the case is "really the only challenge to this law that has come this far. In a sense [Packingham is] carrying the torch for everybody on the registry regardless of whether they've been charged with this."
Gerding believes the law could be narrowed to protect minors from predators without infringing on a person's freedom of speech or ability to operate in an increasingly tech-reliant world—for example, by criminalizing online communication with minors, as opposed to outlawing all social media access.
"North Carolina's law applies to everybody regardless of whether the offense is against a child or an adult, regardless of whether the crime involved a computer or not," Gerding says. "One of the problems in our statute is just that it applies to everybody."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Facebook Block"