WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices on Monday questioned whether a federal law criminalizing the inducement of illegal immigration is an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights.

The justices heard the Biden administration’s appeal of a ruling that struck down the law, saying it violated free speech protections under the Constitution’s First Amendment.

Several members of the court questioned whether the law was too broad, meaning it could criminalize protected speech, although it was not clear if there is a majority among the nine justices to strike it down.

The case concerns Helaman Hansen, who from 2012 to 2016 ran a program charging up to $10,000 for an alleged path to citizenship. She claimed that undocumented immigrants could become citizens through an adult adoption service and convinced 471 people to participate.

At the 2017 trial, he was convicted on two counts of violating a federal law that prohibits encouraging or inducing illegal immigration for private financial gain. He was also convicted of 12 counts of mail fraud and three counts of wire fraud, convictions that are not at issue in the Supreme Court case.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The San Francisco-based US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down the law in February 2022, saying it could lead to someone being convicted simply for saying, «I encourage you to reside in the United States.» .

During oral arguments, some justices echoed those concerns, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh wondering if someone could be convicted of helping an undocumented immigrant get food and shelter.

In a similar vein, Judge Sonia Sotomayor said the law is «criminalizing immigration-related words.»

Judge Elena Kagan also said a «world of communications» unfolds every day involving undocumented immigrants, their families and professional advisers such as attorneys who could be criminalized under the law.

Other judges seemed more sympathetic to the Justice Department, which argued that there was no indication in Hansen’s specific case that his conviction was based on protected speech.

Judge Neil Gorsuch said it was «a bit awkward» that there was no evidence that Hansen’s free speech rights were violated, and seemed to suggest that Hansen was not a sympathetic litigator.

“Vulnerable people are being taken advantage of,” Gorsuch said.

The Supreme Court in 2020 heard a similar case but evaded a ruling on the law’s constitutionality.