By Bob Egelko
A federal judge on Friday barred California from enforcing a voter-approved law that requires 73,000 registered sex offenders to disclose their Internet identities to police.
The requirement would discourage offenders from exercising their right to post anonymous comments online about a variety of topics, including social and political issues, with little apparent benefit to public safety, said U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco.
"Registrants are likely to be chilled from engaging in legitimate public, political and civil communications for fear of losing their anonymity," Henderson said.
The law was part of Proposition 35, an initiative approved by an 81 percent majority in November that increased prison sentences for sex-trafficking crimes, such as coercing someone into prostitution.
Friday's order leaves most of Prop. 35 intact. It blocks only a requirement that all registered sex offenders in California, for past convictions of crimes ranging from indecent exposure to rape, provide police with their e-mail addresses, Internet user names and the names of their Internet service providers.
Henderson had issued a restraining order temporarily blocking the same Internet provision on Nov. 7, the day after the election. His new ruling is a preliminary injunction that would remain in effect indefinitely, although the state and the measure's sponsors could appeal it to a higher court.
The suit was filed by two unidentified former sex offenders and an advocacy group called California Reform Sex Offender Laws, which runs a website where the men post anonymous comments. Linda Lye, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing the plaintiffs, praised the ruling.
"Stopping human trafficking is a worthy goal, but the portions of Prop. 35 that limit online speech won't get us there," she said. "It's crucial that free speech remain free for all of us."
- Why do they get a way with making one bill that covers more than one issue? If they want to handle additional issues, make another bill! This should be illegal to do this, in our opinion.
Chris Kelly, a former chief privacy officer of Facebook who helped to sponsor Prop. 35 and similar laws in other states, said backers of the initiative were disappointed by the ruling but "we are confident that in due time this common-sense provision will be upheld by the courts."
Henderson acknowledged that Internet identification information could help police in some cases - for example, if a registered sex offender used a social networking site to recruit victims of human trafficking.
- So if you suspect a crime has been committed, then why don't you go get a warrant like you are suppose to?
But he said Prop. 35's requirement swept more broadly and would not prevent officers from making the information public. Police have other tools, such as subpoenas, to investigate online sex crimes, the judge said.