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Sex Offenders Win Bid to Halt California Law on Web Use

Two California sex offenders and the American Civil Liberties Union won a court ruling keeping on hold state rules requiring registered offenders to disclose their online accounts and screen names so they can be tracked.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in San Francisco yesterday ruled that, in light of constitutional free-speech rights, the law’s Internet registration requirements aren’t narrowly tailored enough to the state’s goal of combating sexual exploitation.

“The court does not lightly take the step of enjoining a state statute, even on a preliminary basis,” Henderson wrote. “However, just as the court is mindful that a strong majority of California voters approved Proposition 35 and that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting individuals from online sex offenses and human trafficking, it is equally mindful that anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority, and that plaintiffs enjoy no lesser right to anonymous speech simply because they are unpopular.”

Two unidentified offenders and the civil rights group sued to block portions of an anti-human trafficking measure known as Proposition 35 that was approved by more than 80 percent of California voters in November.

“Our office is reviewing the decision,” Nick Pacilio, a spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, said in an e-mail.

Constitutional ‘Misinterpretation’

Backed by former Facebook Inc. executive Chris Kelly, the measure was set to take effect next year. Henderson temporarily put the law on hold after the ACLU sued. The group asked the judge to keep an injunction in place until the case is resolved.

“We are disappointed with this decision, but we are confident that in due time this common sense provision will be upheld by the courts,” Kelly said in a statement. “The claims made by the ACLU have been previously litigated, and appellate courts have rejected their misinterpretation of the Constitution.”

The law increases prison terms for sex offenders and adds new reporting requirements for them. Registered sex offenders in California would be required under the law to report to law enforcement all Internet identifiers and online service providers they use. Registrants also would have to provide in writing any changes or additions to their Internet accounts and screen names.

Speech Rights

California officials said the law would allow them to track sex offenders and prevent them from preying on children online. ACLU attorneys claim the reporting requirements infringe on the constitutional right to anonymous online speech for sex offenders, who they argue have the same First Amendment rights as anyone.

The new rules let police investigate offenders even if there’s no crime committed, ACLU attorneys told Henderson at a Dec. 16 hearing. They said the law is so broad that law enforcement officers can snoop into online communications and require offenders to turn over login information for bank accounts.

Even before the law passed, the California Justice Department’s registration form for convicted sex offenders included fields to report e-mail addresses and screen names and social networks used.

Police are allowed to access the computer system that stores the information, and Internet identifying information is currently only available to the Justice Department.

The case is Doe v. Harris, 12-05713, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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