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Court: Stalking conviction sparked by social media posts violates free speech

A North Carolina appeals court on Tuesday overturned a man's prior stalking conviction, ruling that the social media posts that led to his eventual conviction are protected under the First Amendment.

Brady Shackelford was convicted in 2017 on four counts of stalking and sentenced to more than two years in prison. After meeting an unnamed woman at church in 2015, court documents said Shackelford sent handwritten letters to her home and work addresses after she had turned down a dinner date.

A minister at the church called Shackelford and asked him to stop contacting the woman, and while he did not send any further letters or emails, he reportedly wrote numerous Google Plus posts referring to her as his "soul mate," which continued even after the woman blocked his account and deleted her own.

Shackelford was arrested for misdemeanor stalking for sending cupcakes to the woman's workplace. The same day, according to the ruling, he posted a Google Plus message reading "The pain hurts because I dreamt about this woman and believed that she was my soul mate. How could God be so wrong???"

The woman eventually obtained a court order barring him from posting further information on her, which he proceeded to violate, leading to a felony stalking charge.

In their decision on Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that the conviction was based primarily on social media posts and thus a violation of Shackelford's free speech rights.

"As this case aptly demonstrates, difficult issues arise in attempting to balance, on the one hand, society's laudable desire to protect individuals from emotional injury resulting from unwanted and intrusive comments with, on the other hand, the free speech rights of persons seeking to express themselves on social media," the ruling states.

The state attorney general's office has the option to appeal the ruling, and a spokesperson told The Associated Press that the attorney general's office is reviewing the ruling.