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January 21, 2022

Eleventh Circuit panel decides law enforcement violates First Amendment by placing Halloween warning signs on registered sex offenders' lawns

A couple of days ago, a unanimous Eleventh Circuit panel issued an interesting and notable ruling in McClendon v. Long, No. 21-10092 (11th Cir.  Jan. 19, 2022) (available here).  Here is how the court's opinion gets started:

In October 2018, two deputies from the Butts County Sheriff’s Office placed signs in the front yards of the residences of all 57 registered sex offenders within the County, warning “STOP” and “NO TRICK-OR-TREAT AT THIS ADDRESS.” Before Halloween 2019, three registered sex offenders living in Butts County sued, seeking to enjoin the Sheriff from placing the signs again. The district court denied a permanent injunction and granted summary judgment in favor of the Sheriff.

After review and with the benefit of oral argument, we conclude that the Sheriff’s warning signs are compelled government speech, and their placement violates a homeowner’s First Amendment rights.  Thus, we vacate the district court’s judgment in favor of the Sheriff and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

For many years, I have seen reports about (and have blogged a bit about) all sorts of "special" formal and informal rules applied to registered sex offenders by many localities around Halloween. Some of these rules have been challenged in various courts and a few have been enjoined.  But I cannot recall seeing any other federal circuit opinions on this recurring issue, and I suspect this ruling will be widely cited in future litigation over these kinds of issues.

January 21, 2022 at 09:32 AM | Permalink


This was the right decision. But the narrowly tailored part was bs. The government does not have the right to put this crap on people’s property full stop. In my view, the sheriff should be prosecuted for a civil rights violation.

Many sex offenders deserve stiff sentences, but unless the future ability to violate their First Amendment rights is somehow part of the actual criminal judgment, then we should not be imposing these sorts of things on them. Law matters. Rights matter.

Posted by: Federalist | Jan 21, 2022 9:59:09 AM

Some might be surprised that I agree with Federalist on this particular matter, but I do. For one thing, how effective are these signs, really? It might conceivably be the case that a kid getting Halloween candy gets lured into the house and molested, but in many years as a prosecutor, I never heard of such a case. I have my doubts that it ever happens. If I'm right about that, these signs seem to be gratuitous humiliation.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 21, 2022 4:17:22 PM

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