Appeals Court Rules California Sex Offender Internet Law Unconstitutional

by | November 18, 2014

By Maura Dolan

A federal appeals panel decided Tuesday that a California law that requires registered sex offenders to tell authorities their Internet user names, email addresses and other identifying information violates constitutional protections of free speech.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction against enforcing Proposition 35, which voters passed in 2012.

Registered sex offenders who have completed their sentences and probation or parole are entitled to First Amendment protection, and the law wrongly burdened their ability to engage in online speech, the court said.

"There can be little doubt that requiring a narrow class of individuals to notify the government within 24 hours of engaging in on-line communication with a new identifier significantly burdens those individuals' ability and willingness to speak on the Internet," wrote Judge Jay S. Bybee, an appointee of former President George W. Bush.

The law gave registered sex offenders 24 hours to report to law enforcement in writing when they changed their email addresses or other names by which they were identified in instant messaging or on social media and when they changed Internet providers.

Proposition 35 said the requirements were intended to "combat the crime of human trafficking" and "strengthen laws regarding sexual exploitation, including sex offender registration requirements, to allow law enforcement to track and prevent on-line sex offenses and human trafficking."

A group of registered sex offenders who regularly use the Internet challenged the law the day it took effect.

The 9th Circuit faulted the law for ambiguity and for giving law enforcement too much freedom to disclose offenders' Internet identities to the public.

"Sex offenders' fear of disclosure in and of itself chills their speech," the panel concluded. "If their identity is exposed, their speech, even on topics of public importance, could subject them to harassment, retaliation and intimidation."

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