Sex Offenders’ Right to Anonymity at Stake in NH

     CONCORD, N.H. (CN) – Challenging a law that requires New Hampshire sex offenders to register their online aliases, a civil liberties group told a federal judge that the overbroad requirements could choke harmless speech, like giving restaurant reviews on Yelp.
     Representing a New Hampshire man “convicted of a registerable offense years ago,” the ACLU brought its federal complaint on April 21 over revisions that the state made six years ago to its registration requirements for offenders.
     House Bill 1640, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2009, added a requirement for registered sex offenders to regularly report to the police and divulge any “name, aliases, electronic mail addresses, and any instant messaging, chat, or other Internet communication name identities.”
     Given that New Hampshire’s registration statute “fails to distinguish between sex offenders who pose a high risk to the public,” the New Hampshire ACLU says that asking for online user names could have a chilling effect on Internet free speech.
     “If First Amendment protections are to enjoy enduring relevance in the twenty-first century, they must continue to apply with full force to speech conducted online,” the complaint states.
     The ACLU says it is overbroad to have each of the more than 2,700 New Hampshire citizens currently registered as sex offenders in New Hampshire to report all online usernames regardless of whether the website is related to any crimes, or if the sex offense was related at all to online activity.
     “It essentially bans online anonymous speech that is innocent that has nothing to do with criminality,” the ACLU of New Hampshire’s legal director, Gilles Bissonette, said in an interview.
     Bissonette added that online identifiers include “any account where [a person] is permitted to set up a user profile.”
     “Any email address and essentially any handle use to engage in online communication, including online political groups, book and restaurant review sites, or online medical blog sites,” Bissonette added.
     According to the complaint, New Hampshire authorities have been unable to uncover criminal activity in the 19 times the law has been applied to access records in its six years of existence. In that same time, 32 individuals have been charged for failing to disclose their online usernames.
     The New Hampshire ACLU believes that the law is too broad and that there is solid precedence for their case, similar laws have been struck down in California , Georgia and Nebraska.
     “The harm is substantial,” Bissonette said. “We have a first amendment right to anonymous speech and anonymous association. The fact that they have to disclose accounts that have nothing to with criminality kills innocent expression. The harm is real, and the harm is substantial.”
     A spokesperson for the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

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