A federal district court has ruled that a Georgia sheriff violated the First Amendment by posting signs in front of sex offenders’ homes proclaiming, “NO TRICK-OR-TREAT AT THIS ADDRESS!!” The court reasoned that the sheriff violated the no-compelled speech doctrine in First Amendment law.
Butts County Sheriff Gary Long posted signs in the yards of sex offenders Christopher Reed, Reginald Holden and Corey McClendon before Halloween. The signs essentially warned parents and children that these homes are not safe for children.
Reed, Holden and McClendon were convicted of sex offenses years ago, but all three men are all apparently living productive lives now. Furthermore, the convictions took place years ago. For example, McClendon was convicted of statutory rape in 2001 when he was 17 years old.
The men filed a federal lawsuit, seeking a court ruling to order Long to remove these signs from their yards. Long responded that there was no First Amendment problem because the signs are a form of government speech, immune from First Amendment scrutiny.
U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell agreed with the plaintiffs in his Oct. 29, 2019 ruling in Reed v. Long. Treadwell agreed that the signs were a form of government speech, but emphasized that even government speech can turn into impermissible compelled speech.
“The signs here are, indeed, government speech, but the Supreme Court has never said that government speech cannot also be, or can’t become, compelled speech,” he explained.
Treadwell relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Wooley v. Maynard (1977), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a New Hampshire motorist could affix a piece of red tape on his license plate to cover up the state motto, “Live Free or Die.”
Treadwell pointed out that the Georgia sheriff is forcing the sex offenders to agree with the government’s message and does not provide them a way to counter that governmental message.
Judge Treadwell’s analysis is correct. The government should not be able to post a sign in an individual’s yard declaring his or her home unsafe for the public simply because the individual committed a criminal offense years ago.
Sheriff Long should spend some time reading the Constitution and studying the First Amendment, rather than flagrantly violating it.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books including, “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).