Courts have an access problem. Many civil procedures are too complex to navigate alone, yet many people cannot afford an attorney. The North Carolina Justice for All Project wants to help.

The idea is simple. The organization’s members, all state-certified paralegals, want to host free clinics for people who need assistance filling out court-created forms for common issues like evictions, restraining orders, and uncontested divorces. Many potential clients have nowhere else to go.

Some of the group’s members also want to provide similar assistance separately. They would charge a fee, but their rates would be low compared to hiring an attorney.

Both approaches address a gap in the US legal system. People from lower-income households sometimes qualify for free legal assistance from groups like Legal Aid. People on the other end of the economic spectrum can pay their own way. But many families fall somewhere in between. The North Carolina Justice for All Project calls this the “missing middle.”

North Carolina should welcome efforts to close the gap. But instead of letting paralegals share their knowledge, the state muzzles their speech using a broad prohibition on the “unauthorized practice of law.”

What this phrase means can be nebulous. Filing a motion on behalf of a client usually counts as the “practice of law.” But what about discussing general legal principles? Or sharing opinions on a case? Or giving legal advice to family and friends?

When in doubt, North Carolina errs on the side of attorneys. Even helping someone fill in the blanks on a court-created form requires a law license in North Carolina, which means paralegals must stay silent — even when they have the right expertise and experience.

This is censorship.

People have a right to speak, which includes the right to give advice in professional settings. Whether or not money changes hands is irrelevant. Coaches, consultants, counselors, trainers, and guides all talk for a living, and the First Amendment protects their ability to provide for themselves and their families.

Paralegals have the same right, but North Carolina seeks to stifle it. Rather than accept the restrictions, the North Carolina Justice for All Project and two North Carolina paralegals fought back with a First Amendment lawsuit on Jan. 4, 2024. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, represents them. We also represent Upsolve, a New York-based nonprofit organization, in a separate, similar lawsuit.

Both cases highlight a nationwide trend. Policymakers, eager to flex their authority, are attempting to control speech by imposing occupational-licensing requirements. The result is hundreds of censorship panels from coast to coast.

NIFLA v. Becerra, a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, should have curbed this type of regulatory overreach. The opinion prohibits the government from claiming “unfettered power” to reduce a group’s First Amendment rights by imposing licensing requirements. “Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals,’” the majority held.

Occupational licensing boards claim unfettered power anyway. The Supreme Court talks, but regulators do not listen.

Licensing boards tried to stop history buff Kim Billups from talking about city landmarks in South Carolina. They tried to stop electrical engineer Mats Järlström from talking about red-light cameras in Oregon. And they tried to stop end-of-life doulas Akhila Murphy and Donna Peizer from talking about funeral options in California.

Back in North Carolina, they tried to stop engineer Wayne Nutt from providing court testimony about stormwater management. In all of these cases, federal courts held that states had violated the First Amendment.

Elsewhere, vocational instructors, health coaches, drone operators, mapmakers, and teletherapists have faced punishment for sharing information without government permission. If they want to speak, regulators say, they must obtain an occupational license.

For North Carolina paralegals, this would mean enrolling in law school and paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition — just to assist with forms they already know how to complete.

The ultimate losers are families stuck without legal help. This is not a small number. Nationwide, 74% of lower-income households experience at least one civil legal problem per year, and most receive no help or insufficient help. They must go it alone.

The North Carolina Justice for All Project could help. But regulators must get out of the way and let them speak.