Appeals Court Blocks Law That Would Require Sex Offenders to Report Online Names and ISPs

A federal appeals court in San Francisco today blocked enforcement of a state law that would require registered sex offenders in California to notify police of any new online names or Internet service providers they use within 24 hours.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in San Francisco last year.

The court said the requirement, enacted as part of a 2012 voter initiative intended to crack down on sex trafficking, violated the constitutional First Amendment free-speech rights of offenders who have served their prison terms.

The measure “directly and exclusively burdens speech, and a substantial amount of that speech is clearly protected under the First Amendment,” Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote in the ruling.

The requirement would have applied to the state’s 73,000 registered sex offenders.

It is part of a voter initiative entitled the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, or CASE Act, which was enacted as Proposition 35 by an 81 percent majority of voters in November 2012.

The law also increases sentences and fines for people convicted of sex trafficking. Those parts of the law were not challenged in the civil rights lawsuit before the court.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in San Francisco by two anonymous sex offenders and a group called California Reform Sex Offender Laws.

They claimed the measure infringed on their free-speech right to comment anonymously online on law reform and other topics without fear of retribution or harassment.

They were represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

ACLU attorney Linda Lye said, “The portions of Proposition 35 that unconstitutionally limit what people say online won’t help us end human trafficking.

“Anonymity is key to protecting speech by unpopular or controversial groups and allowing robust political debate,” Lye said.

The appeals court panel said the requirement “unnecessarily chills protected speech in at least three ways.”

It said the law does not make clear what sex offenders are required to report, lacks safeguards against public release of personally identifying information and creates an “onerous and overbroad” burden in the 24-hour reporting requirement.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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