MACON, Ga. (CN) – A federal judge ruled late Tuesday that Georgia sheriff’s deputies cannot place “no trick-or-treat” warning signs in the yards of three registered sex offenders this Halloween.
U.S. District Court Judge Marc Treadwell granted the offenders' motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that the signs reading "Warning! No trick-or-treat at this address!!" would violate their First Amendment rights.
The Butts County Sheriff's Office placed the warning in the front yards of registered sex offenders' homes last Halloween, warning the offenders that they would be arrested if they removed the signs. Deputies also tacked a leaflet with an additional warning onto their front doors.
But Treadwell, a Barack Obama appointee, ruled the signs cannot be used this year.
"The question the court must answer is not whether Sheriff [Gary] 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," the 25-page opinion states.
The judge ruled that the signs are a form of compelled government speech which unfairly require the men to “to effectively endorse or adopt, or at least acquiesce in,” the sheriff’s message.
Although Georgia law requires county sheriffs to post a list of sex offenders residing in their counties online, Treadwell noted the statute "does not require or authorize sheriffs to post signs in front of sex offenders’ homes, nor does it require sex offenders themselves to allow such signs."
Christopher Reed, Reginald Holden, and Corey McClendon sued the sheriff's office in September on behalf of all registered sex offenders in Butts County to prevent deputies from putting the signs up again this year.
The men argued that the sheriff's department trespassed on their properties to display the signs and caused them to suffer anxiety, embarrassment, and humiliation.
Treadwell found that the sheriff failed to provide evidence showing that the three men posed or will pose any threat to trick-or-treaters and failed to show that the signs would serve any legitimate safety function.
The sheriff's office could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But in a statement released Tuesday on the office’s Facebook page, Sheriff Long urged community members to respect the judge's ruling.
"While the vast majority of us may disagree with the judge’s ruling, I strongly encourage you to not take matters into your own hands this Halloween. We understand frustration with the judge’s ruling, but we all must abide by it unless it is overturned on appeal. Unfortunately, there is no time to appeal before this Halloween," he said.
Long defended his decision to display the signs, saying he "intended to place the warning signs consistent with Georgia's sex offender and registration warning law,” and that he sought the advice of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia before displaying the signs last year.
"The judge in this matter has ruled that I cannot put signs on the right-of-way of the three offenders that filed the lawsuit. While I respectfully and strongly disagree with the judge’s ruling, I must abide by the ruling," the sheriff said.
Although Treadwell refused to extend the injunction to all sex offenders in Butts County, the judge cautioned the sheriff's department against continuing the policy.
"The defendants should be aware that the authority for their blanket sign posting is dubious at best and even more dubious if posted over the objection of registrants," the ruling states.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.