It's Halloween, which means it's time to panic about the threat allegedly posed by candy-distributing sex offenders. This week a federal judge in Georgia threw some cold water on such fearmongering, ruling that Butts County Sheriff Gary Long may not force three registered sex offenders to post signs warning trick-or-treaters to stay away from their homes.
Last October, Long's deputies "placed signs in front of every registered sex offender's house to notify the public that it's a house to avoid." The signs, identified as "a community safety message from Butts County Sheriff Gary Long," read: "Warning! No Trick-or-Treat at This Address!!"
The deputies also left a notice on the front door of each targeted home, saying a "Halloween Safety sign has been placed in front of your residence by Order of Sheriff Gary Long. This order is due to a registered Sex Offender is registered to be living at this address with the Butts County Sheriff Office." It added that "THIS SIGN IS PROPERTY OF THE BUTTS COUNTY SHERIFF OFFICE SHERIFF GARY LONG," and "IT SHALL NOT BE REMOVED BY ANYONE OTHER THAN THE BUTTS COUNTY SHERIFF OFFICE." Residents who objected were threatened with arrest, and they were forbidden to post any countervailing messages of their own.
Long tried to repeat the stunt this year, but he was stymied by a federal lawsuit that three Butts County residents, Christopher Reed, Reginald Holden, and Corey McClendon, filed last month. They argued that deputies were illegally trespassing on their property to put up the signs, which are not required by state law. The plaintiffs also said the signs were a form of constitutionally prohibited compelled speech that caused "anxiety, embarrassment and humiliation."
U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell found the claims compelling enough to issue a preliminary injunction against Long's signs on Tuesday. "The Defendants have provided no evidence showing that the Plaintiffs have posed or will pose any threat to children trick-or-treating on Halloween, and Holden and McClendon testified that they planned to shut off their lights and not answer the door on Halloween, just as they have in years past," Treadwell wrote. "On the other hand, the public interest always is served when citizens' constitutional rights are protected, including sex offenders'."
Treadwell noted that Reed, Holden, and McClendon are required to register with the sheriff's office "because many years ago they committed offenses that fall within the State of Georgia's definition of sex offenses." Yet "they have served their terms of imprisonment and have, as far as the law is concerned, paid their debts to society." Treadwell added that "by all accounts, they are rehabilitated" and "live productive, law-abiding lives." Furthermore, the state, under its system for classifying sex offenders, "has not determined that they pose an increased risk of again committing a sexual offense." Hence "the Sheriff's decision is not based on any determination that the Plaintiffs are dangerous."
Treadwell noted that "the Defendants have not cited any evidence or authority indicating that they may use the right-of-way in front of the Plaintiffs' homes for their speech." He concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail in their claim that the signs violated their First Amendment rights by forcing them to participate in speech to which they object.
"By requiring the Plaintiffs to display these signs, Sheriff Long and his deputies are requiring the Plaintiffs to effectively endorse or adopt, or at least acquiesce in, his message, not theirs, because the only message Sheriff Long will allow is his," Treadwell said. "The Defendants plan to compel the Plaintiffs to promote Sheriff Long's speech. These facts are sufficient to demonstrate that the Plaintiffs are substantially likely to show that the Defendants will burden the Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights."
Treadwell noted that "the question the Court must answer is not whether Sheriff Long's plan is wise or moral, or whether it makes penological sense." Rather, "the question is whether Sheriff Long's plan runs afoul of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It does."
Treadwell nevertheless declined to issue a broader injunction on behalf of all 54 registered sex offenders in Butts County. "Although, as a practical matter, it might be
assumed that anyone would object to such a message from law enforcement in front of their homes, the Court is not comfortable making that assumption as a foundation for injunctive relief," he wrote. "Moreover, different circumstances could exist with regard to particular registrants."
In a message on Facebook, Long said he would abide by the judge's order but maintained that he was simply trying to "protect the public, especially the children." Last year, however, Long conceded that the risk supposedly addressed by his signs was slight. "I'm not trying to humiliate 'em or anything like that," he told CBS News. "Let's face reality: We have a greater chance of children getting run over by a car [on Halloween] than being a victim of sexual assault by a repeat offender. But at the end of the day if, in fact, we had a child that fell victim to a sexual assault, especially by a convicted sex offender, I don't think I could sleep at night."
Last year Lenore Skenazy noted that "a thorough study of 67,000 cases of child molestation found zero increase in sex crimes against children on Halloween." The authors of that 2009 study, reported in the journal Sexual Abuse, observed that "states, municipalities, and parole departments have adopted policies banning known sex offenders from Halloween activities, based on the worry that there is unusual risk on these days." Yet their analysis of cases involving sex crimes against children committed by people other than relatives found "no increased rate on or just before Halloween." Furthermore, "Halloween incidents did not evidence unusual case characteristics." The researchers concluded that "these findings raise questions about the wisdom of diverting law enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist."