Do people convicted of sex offenses have a right to privacy after prison and probation, since they've been judged to be no longer a threat to society?
Or, does a public desire to know about the presence of such individuals living in communities trump that right to privacy?
The Supreme Court has agreed to sort out these questions. This week it added to its fall docket a Connecticut case that challenges the state's online registry of people convicted of sex offenses. The court already had on its docket an Alaska case that also raises objections to such registries.
Under so-called "Megan's laws," which exist in every state, sex-offender registries are mandatory. These statutes sprang up in the wake of a 1994 New Jersey case involving a girl who was molested and murdered by a neighbor who had served time for a sex offense but whose background was unknown to the community.
It's hard to imagine an issue that more dramatically pits constitutional guarantees of fair treatment for those who have served their time against profound public safety concerns.
In the Connecticut case, two lower federal courts found that the state overstepped the bounds of due process by publishing the names and addresses of all convicted sex offenders, regardless of the relative seriousness of their crimes. Such individuals should be given hearings to determine whether they still pose a danger, the courts said.
That approach invites the question of why offenders considered dangerous are released in the first place. Connecticut's position is that the public is better served by posting the whereabouts and crimes of released offenders, rather than engaging in analysis of whether they've reformed.
Indeed, a deeper question is whether sex offenders can ever be considered "safe," since their behavior is viewed as a mental disorder. That perspective would argue for ongoing state oversight.
Some states list only the most serious offenders, or allow individuals to appeal the listings.
These laws are probably here to stay. The court has an opportunity to make them fit more judiciously into the constitutional structure.