Sexual offender registries continue to drive local governments to new levels of hysterics. Recently the mayor of Knox County, Tennessee, issued an order banning anyone on that state’s Sex Offender Registry from visiting any of the county’s 19 public libraries. Mayor Tim Burchett said he was acting in accordance with a Tennessee law that took effect on July 1, allowing any public library director “to reasonably restrict the [library] access of any person listed on the sexual offender registry.” (Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-39-216)
“I just don’t want them anywhere around our kids,” Burchett told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “People will say they’ve paid their debts to society, but they’ve given some of those kids a life sentence.” Burchett’s order, however, applies to anyone on the registry, which includes people who were convicted of crimes that did not involve children.
Burchett’s decision is controversial even with people who support the sex offender registry. State Rep. John Tidwell, who sponsored the law giving Burchett the authority to ban people on the registry from libraries, told the Tennessean that “the law’s intent wasn’t to bar offenders but to let librarians restrict their access to times when children aren’t gathered at libraries.”
The Tennessean reported Burchett’s response as, “sex offenders can go to bookstores.”
Burchett’s actions may raise constitutional problems. Last year a federal judge in New Mexico struck down the City of Albuquerque’s near-identical ban on registered sex offenders from its public libraries. Judge M. Christina Armijo, ruling in Doe v. City of Albuquerque, said a library is a “designated public forum” where all citizens have “a protected First Amendment right to receive information.” Armijo ruled a total ban on registered sex offenders could not satisfy the “strict scrutiny” required whenever the government infringes on a fundamental right.
Armijo’s decision is currently under review by the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, and in any case does not constitute binding precedent over Tennessee’s law. Indeed, some scholars maintain there is no constitutional problem with these types of bans. Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and noted First Amendment scholar, opined regarding Burchett’s decision:
I think … there’s no constitutional problem here. The government has no obligation to create libraries, or open them to the public at large. It may, for instance, open them only to local residents (subject possibly to Article IV Privileges and Immunities Clause constraints, though I doubt that those would apply when government benefits such as this are at stake). It may open them only to university students. It may open them only to children. And it may, I think, open them to all people except registered sex offenders.
Volokh added, however, that while he thinks the ban may be constitutional, it could still “violate federal rules when the library gets benefits under the Federal Depository Library program.” These are libraries that store various government records. One of Knox County’s public libraries is a participating institution. FDLP rules state that any depository library’s access policies may not “hinder access to depository materials.”
In any event, Mayor Burchett’s actions demonstrate how the impact of sex offender registries will only continue to grow – which in some cases cand become a life sentence on the sex offender egistry. This is why if you or someone you know is charged with a crime that is subject to a registration requirement upon conviction — as almost every sex offense does in Michigan — it’s essential to retain an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Satawa Law can help you avoid conviction and punishment, which may include decades of being a registered sex offender.