SAN FRANCISCO -- Even child sex offenders have free speech rights.
The question for a federal judge Monday was whether those rights can be limited by a voter-approved requirement that registered sex offenders turn over vital online information such as social media passwords, usernames and Internet service providers to law-enforcement officials.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson didn't say much during the nearly three-hour hearing in San Francisco, giving no indication of how he will rule in the coming weeks. Henderson earlier put that provision of Proposition 35 on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by two convicted sex offenders represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The ACLU and EFF argue the rule violates their clients' free speech rights because it prevents them from expressing their views anonymously like other Web surfers. The lawyers also argue that the requirement will "chill" -- or dissuade -- sex offenders who have served their sentence from exercising their free speech rights online.
"There is no historical preference of stripping people of their 1st Amendment rights because they were convicted of a crime long ago," ACLU attorney Michael Risher said. "They have the same rights as everyone else as soon as they finish probation or parole."
Proposition 35, which passed with 81 percent support, also set higher prison sentences for sex traffickers while requiring those convicted of that crime to now register as a sex offender. The lawsuit doesn't challenge that portion of the law.
California deputy attorney general Robert Wilson on Monday defended the reporting provision as a necessary and helpful tool for law enforcement officials seeking to stop sex crimes before they happen while also investigating those that did.
"It's not so we can monitor what books or groceries they are buying," Wilson said. "It's for if something bad or suspicious pops up."
He said the sex offenders' online anonymity is protected because what they report is not a public record. Wilson said police who disclose the information or mishandled it are subject to discipline, including dismissal and even criminal charges.
James Harrison, a lawyer who represents former Facebook executive Chris Kelly and other backers of Proposition 35, told the court that the information offenders who have to register have to report is limited.
"Nothing in Proposition 35 requires a registrant to report what Web sites he visits," Harrison told the judge.
The judge said he would "rule as soon as possible."