11th Circuit Says a Sheriff Violated the First Amendment by Posting Warning Signs on the Lawns of Registered Sex Offenders

According to a Federal Appeals Court ruling, Georgia’s sheriff was in violation of the First Amendment because he placed signs on lawns belonging to registered sex offender sex predators to warn of trick-or treaters. The U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit panel of three judges unanimously ruled that the signs were unconstitutional government-compelled expression. The decision strikes a blow against irrational policies that stigmatize sex offenders without any plausible public safety payoff—in particular, panicky precautions against the special danger they allegedly pose on Halloween.

Two sheriff’s deputies placed cautionary signs on the front yards in Butts County, a few days before Halloween 2018. “WARNING!” The signs stated. “NO TRICKOR-TREATING at THIS ADDRESS!” These signs said that the “community safety message” came from Butts County Sheriff Gary Long. The deputies trespassed on private property in order to shame those who live there. They told affected residents that they would not be allowed to take down the signs.

Long shared his Facebook account with the world that his office placed signs outside every house where a registered sexual offender lives to inform the public to stay away from such houses. According to Long, Georgia law bans registered sexual offenders from taking part in Halloween decorations. Long later admitted this wasn’t true.

Long claimed also that the signs would “protect your safety” He did not make any effort to identify registrants by their criminal history or the state-assessed probability of recidivism. He also admitted that none of those he had targeted in his six-year tenure as sheriff were accused of having inappropriate contact with children on Halloween or any of the other 364 days throughout the year.

Long made a huge show of responding to the mythical threat. A 2009 survey of 67,000 minors who were convicted of sexual offenses against children on Halloween found that there was no increase in the rate. This despite widespread concerns about this practice. That study, published in The Journal by the authors, was also reported. Sexual abuseAccording to a report, “states and municipalities as well as parole offices” have adopted policies that prohibit known sex offenders from participating in Halloween activities. This was based on concerns that these events could pose an unusual risk.

Long’s stunt wasn’t just absurd. The three men Long was targeting were arguing in a federal case. Long has been recognized by the Supreme Court that the First Amendment prohibits government officials from making people promote messages they don’t agree with.

Case 1977 Wooley v. MaynardFor example, New Hampshire couldn’t punish Jehovah’s Witnesses who covered up “Live Free or Die” on their license plates. New Hampshire’s justices noted that the state “in essence requires” that the appellees either use their property as a “mobile billboard” for State’s ideology message, or face a fine. It was held that the State could not constitutionally require individuals to “participate in the dissemination” of an ideology message through the display of it on private property.

Butts County residents Corey McClendon (with Reginald Holden) and Christopher Reed argued in their suit against Long that Long’s warning signs also qualified as unconstitutionally compelled expression. U.S. District Court Judge Marc Treadwell initially appeared to agree with Long’s September 2019 preliminary injunction. After concluding Long’s sign did not violate the First Amendment, he dismissed the suit.

Treadwell thought that signs weren’t compelled speech. Instead, passers-by might ascribe Long the message rather than Long. McClendon and Holden did not have to endorse the message. Reed, Holden, & Reed are free to disagree with them. Treadwell noted also that plaintiffs had the right to discredit Long’s warnings by posting corrective signs.

The 11th Circuit ruled that Treadwell was wrong in a Jan 19 ruling. Treadwell “determined that an obligated government speech was appropriate,” he said.
The claim must be found that the speech is endorsed by a third party,” an appeals court ruled.Wooley contains no such
requirement.” According to the court, “primary harm” was in fact “the plaintiff’s use of his property as a “billboard” for government speech.”

Treadwell was also ruled to have erred in deciding that plaintiffs could place yard signs of their choice, in addition to the ones posted by the Sheriff. This would be a remedy for the original violation. It stated that if this were true, the Sheriff could place AnySign identifying him as the speaker AnyAs long as the sign was not obstructive, the county resident had permission to place a counterpoint. This would clearly be against the law. Wooley.

Long’s signs have to be considered compelled speech by the 11th Circuit. This means they must pass strict scrutiny, which is a requirement that they meet a government “compelling interest”. The court found that Long’s stated purpose to protect children from predatory sexual behavior counts as “compelling” and said his yard signs were “not narrowly tailored in order to accomplish this goal.”

Treadwell stated that McClendon and Holden were “rehabilitated” and leading productive lives. It was also not clear that other registrants could pose a threat for children.

Long did not “consider whether any of these registrants were considered by Georgia to be likely to recidivate”, the 11th Circuit stated. He also “agreed that, since his election in 2013, there had been no issue with any registrant having unauthorized contact with or reoffending at Halloween, or any other occasion.” Long “hasn’t provided any evidence” that Butts County residents pose a risk to trick-or treating children, or that the signs could prevent that from happening.

When it comes to sex crimes, lawmakers are often just as judgmental as Long. They harass those convicted and impose a host of restrictions on them long after their sentence has been completed. These policies include both the registries and residence restrictions. They also contain a variety of occupational disqualifications. As with Long’s yard signs there is no evidence they actually work. They instead impose punishment under the pretense of regulation, undermining rehabilitation through constant ostracism.