Sheriff defends Halloween sex-offender-warning signs
MACON, Ga. – A Georgia sheriff was in federal district court Thursday, Oct. 24, defending his decision to post signs in front of sex offenders' homes warning trick-or-treaters not to approach.
Three sex offenders have filed suit against Butts County, Ga., sheriff Gary Long because he posted signs in front of 200 registered sex offenders' homes in 2018 warning trick-or-treaters not to approach the properties. The plaintiffs are trying to prevent Long from posting the signs again in 2019 and beyond.
"Stop. Warning. No Trick-Or-Treat At This Address!!" the signs read, with the qualifier, "A community safety message from Butts County Sheriff Gary Long." Long specified his reasoning with a public notice on the sheriff's office Facebook page informing readers of the lawsuit.
"Last Halloween, the Chamber of Commerce cancelled 'Halloween on the Square,'" Long said. "In doing so, our neighborhoods had a large increase in children going door-to-door. My office took precautions and placed signs indicating 'No Trick or Treat' at each registered sex offender's residence in the county. This was done to ensure the safety of our children."
Plaintiffs Christopher Reed, Reginald Holden and Corey McClendon filed the class-action lawsuit Sept. 24 in the Middle District of Georgia Federal Court in Macon, identifying themselves as registered sex offenders and naming as defendants Long, deputy Jeanette Riley and "John or Jane Does" charged with placing the signs in 2018.
Reed, Holden and McClendon maintain they are already required by Georgia law to register as sex offenders, although the lawsuit says McClendon is a convicted statutory rapist and objects to being labelled a "sex offender."
"Respondents' Halloween policy compels petitioners ... involuntarily to declare and publicize to their neighbors, community members and passers-by that they are registered sex offenders," reads the lawsuit. "Respondents' actions thus violate petitioners' right to be free from compelled speech as secured by the First and Fourteenth Amendments" to the U.S. Constitution.
The sheriff and deputies trespassed the plaintiff's property and occupied their property without compensating them, the plaintiffs allege.
Long and others, in their answer to the complaint, claim they legally posted the signs.
"Plaintiffs' relevant First Amendment rights in this context are diminished by the pervasive government regulation applicable to sexual offenders, and any burden on any plaintiff's alleged First Amendment right(s) was ... outweighed," the court document reads, "by the compelling government interest in protecting vulnerable members of the public from sexual offenders.... (The state has a strong interest in preventing future sexual offenses and alerting local law enforcement and citizens to the whereabouts of those that could reoffend)."
Long also pledged on Facebook to protect children from sex offenders.
"Regardless of the Judge's ruling this Thursday, I WILL do everything within the letter of the Law to protect the children of this Community," said Long, who has held his post since 2013.
Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.