By Andrew Cohen . . . Lester Gerard Packingham was having a really good day back on April 27, 2010. The North Carolina man had just learned that a traffic ticket against him had been dismissed, so he logged onto his Facebook account and gleefully told the world: “Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, no court costs, no nothing spent… Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks Jesus.”
At the same time, Brian Schnee, a police officer in Durham, was doing his job, working to identify registered sex offenders in the state who were accessing sites like Facebook. He came across Packingham’s post and recognized the face but not the name on the page, “J.r. Gerrard.” Because Schnee knew Packingham to be a sex offender the officer got a search warrant for Packingham’s residence, where he found proof that Packingham was, indeed, “J.r. Gerrard” and that he had, indeed, opened the Facebook account.
Packingham’s glee soon ended. He was indicted and ultimately convicted of violating a state law that makes it a felony for any person on the state’s sex offender registry to “access” any “commercial social networking Website” that he or she “knows” does not restrict membership to adults. The sweeping measure, enacted in 2008, applies to approximately 20,000 North Carolina residents who have been placed on the offender registry for one reason or another. It has been used in more than 1,000 prosecutions like the one against Packingham.
But none of those other cases generated a successful U.S. Supreme Court appeal. For six years now Packingham has fought the charges, in and out of court, on the simple premise that it should not be a crime to express online joy (on Facebook or any other site) about the demise of a parking ticket. And prosecutors and state attorneys have been equally adamant since 2010 that the law that ensnared Packingham is a valid exercise of state power to protect the Internet’s most vulnerable surfers from great harm.
Next week, the justices in Washington will hear oral arguments in the Packingham case. The primary dispute centers around Packingham’s free speech rights: does the First Amendment protect his ability to be on Facebook as a sex offender? But just below the surface is a dispute about how far the state may go to punish someone for acting without criminal intent. As Packingham’s lawyers put it: “[E]arly First Amendment cases establish basic principles restricting criminal punishment to persons proved to have acted with both ‘an evil doing hand’ and ‘an evil meaning mind’” and Packingham is guilty of neither.
(Please continue reading at The Marshall Project)