If nothing else, Dennis Sobin is not your typical ex-con.
At first glance, he looks like the model returning citizen: After serving more than a decade in prison, Sobin, 70, returned to the District, started a gallery for prison art and ran for mayor.
His nonprofit organizations have received grants from George Soros’s Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 2010, he appeared on the cover of the Washington City Paper .
But Sobin is also a sex offender. A former pornographer who’s appeared on “The Sally Jesse Raphael Show” and “Geraldo,” Sobin was convicted of sexual performance using a minor in 1992 in Florida.
So, every 90 days, Sobin must report to D.C.’s Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), and his photo appears on D.C.’s public registry.
Sobin thinks it’s unfair. So, for his latest act, Sobin has decided to protest his treatment by creating his own online data base and registering the people who monitor him at the sex offender registry.
Now, in an unusual case that will be heard on Tuesday, a D.C. Superior Court judge will decide whether a court employee can file a civil protection order to prevent Sobin from posting her photo on his anti-registry registry, www.idiotsregistry.info , and distributing her photograph on fliers.
“Here at www.IdiotsRegistry.info you will find the names of politicians and public figures who have encouraged the creation of, or have refused to denounce, government registration websites that target citizens for harassment,” Sobin’s site reads. “In the tradition of Nazi registration of Jews and Gypsies and the Salem lists of alleged witches, modern government registries are unfair and un-American.”
Stephanie Gray, who works for CSOSA, is asking the court to force Sobin to remove her picture from the site.
Sobin, who was under Gray’s supervision until she got another position at the agency, did not mince words when criticizing Gray.
“Face of Evil: ‘Registry Specialist’ Stephanie Gray shoots icy stare,” Sobin posted under a photo of Gray. “Gray requested and received a transfer due to the guilt she felt in her loathsome job.”
Sobin said his action was inspired by Supreme Court rulings which hold that sex offender registries are not punitive and do not constitute double jeopardy.
“If it’s not punishment to be on a list, we thought we’d put the people who do the registering on a list,” he said.
Gray took another view.
“He writes derogatory information about me,” Gray wrote in her request for a protection order. “I have been move[d] from the Sex Offender Registry and he continues to trash the bldg. where I am with pictures he has taken of me without me knowing.”
Should Sobin prevail,“It would send a message to all sex offenders in the District of Columbia,” according to a petition filed by Gray’s attorneys which accused Sobin of stalking. “Convicted criminals required to report to CSOSA could harass them with impunity under the guise of protected political speech.” Gray, through her attorneys, declined comment, as did CSOSA.
Sobin has found an ally: the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief on his behalf.
“We think there are some significant First Amendment issues,” said Art Spitzer, legal director of ACLU’s D.C. office, who pointed out that Gray is not alleging physical harm. “Domestic violence laws are supposed to protect people from crimes, but not hurt feelings. . . . People are allowed to embarrass each other and make each other feel bad when making a political point.”
Though Sobin’s legal strategy is new, sex offender registries have been around for a long time.
Though California became the first state to establish a sex offender registry in 1947, many states followed suit after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old living in New Jersey, was murdered by her neighbor, a serial sex offender, in 1994. D.C. created its registry in 1999.
Experts in the field said Sobin’s approach was unusual.
Katie Gotch, a spokesperson for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, estimated that there are 700,000 sex offenders on registries in America, but wasn’t aware of any who had mounted protests like Sobin’s.
“That’s actually very novel,” said Gotch. “I have not heard of that and I’m not surprised he’s getting sued.”
Should Sobin win, Gray’s civil protection request will be denied, but D.C.’s sex offender registry will not be affected.
But, Sobin said, he’ll have struck a blow for free speech and shown the flawed logic behind the registry — even if there’s collateral damage.
“Ms. Gray happens to be a very sensitive, compassionate individual who is on the registration list,” Sobin said. “It’s a war. . . . They’re involved in this registration thing and unless they move themselves out, we’re going to oppose them.”