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Utah Sex Offender Internet Registry Statute Violates First Amendment

On September 25, 2008, a federal court in Utah enjoined the enforcement of an amended statute requiring the state’s 7,000 registered sex offenders to report all of their Internet identifiers, including user names, passwords and website addresses.

In 2005, a Utah man identified as John Doe was convicted of sex offenses against a minor. He served 13 months in prison and was released without parole or other form of supervision. Due to his conviction, Doe was required to register on Utah’s sex offender registry, which “is administered and maintained by Utah’s Department of Corrections” (UDOC).

Effective July 1, 2008, the Registry Statute was amended to require sex offenders to provide the UDOC with “any electronic mail, chat, instant messenger, social networking or similar” online identifiers used for Internet communication, as well as the name and Internet address of all such websites used and any passwords associated with an online identifier. The statute made it a felony not to provide this information.

One week before its effective date, Doe challenged the amendment in federal court. He moved for a temporary restraining order (TRO), which the district court granted on June 30, 2008.

Doe then moved for summary judgment. The court found that “Mr. Doe’s most compelling constitutional argument is that the Registry Statute abridges his First Amendment right to speak anonymously online.”

The court noted the lack of any cases squarely addressing the question before it. “This action appears to be one of the first challenges to a registry’s Internet information requirement on First Amendment grounds,” the district court observed. Finding itself “in wholly untested legal waters,” the court analyzed numerous First Amendment holdings in analogous contexts, and concluded that the First Amendment protects anonymous online speech.

Rather than challenge this conclusion, the Defendants instead argued that as a sex offender, Doe had relinquished that right. Drawing a distinction between sex offenders still serving sentences or on supervision and those who have completed all sentence obligations, the court held that “Doe has not given up his right to anonymous Internet speech because of his status as a sex offender.”

The district court found “that the Registry Statute burdens Mr. Doe’s right to anonymous online speech,” by chilling his First Amendment right to engage in protected anonymous speech. Determining that the amended statute imposed a “content-based restriction,” the court applied an “exacting scrutiny” analysis.

Under that standard, the government must have a compelling interest and must employ the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The court found it was unquestionable that Utah had a compelling interest in protecting children from Internet predators and investigating online crimes.

It concluded, however, that the statute’s disclosure requirements were not the least restrictive means available to meet those goals. Therefore, the court found that “on its face,” the Registry Statute “violates the First Amendment as applied to Mr. Doe.”
Accordingly, the Defendants were enjoined from enforcing the amended statute against him.

The court found it unnecessary to address Doe’s Fourth Amendment and ex post facto arguments. See: Doe v. Shurtleff, U.S.D.C. (D. Utah), Case No. 1:08-cv-00064-TC (2008 WL 4427594).

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Related legal case

Doe v. Shurtleff