A United States appellate court has overturned a lower court’s ruling in the case of a Georgia sheriff.
Butts County Sheriff Gary Long in 2018 hung signs in the yards of the county’s 57 registered sex offenders before Halloween, warning parents not to allow their children to trick-or-treat at those homes.
“Warning! No trick-or-treat at this address!!” the signs said.
At the time, he said on Facebook that registered sex offenders were barred from participating in Halloween under Georgia law. He also told the sex offenders that they were not allowed to remove the signs, and that only a deputy could do so.
Three of those sex offenders, Corey McClendon, Reginald Holden and Christoper Reed sued Long, one of his deputies and three unnamed individuals in September of 2019. The plaintiffs said the signs were a First Amendment violation by way of compelled speech.
The plaintiffs first found success in district court, which ruled in their favor in 2019, granting them injunctive relief. But after they filed an amended complaint in 2020 adding a second deputy and dropping the unnamed defendants, the district court ruled against them.
Long’s defense was that he never barred the sex offenders from placing their own signs on their property disputing his sign.
The plaintiffs then appealed the case, which was taken up by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
That court came to a different conclusion this week.
“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,” it said. “Thus, we vacate the district court’s judgment in favor of the Sheriff and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Along with injunctive relief prohibiting Long’s office from putting signs up on their property, the plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount in damages. The case will now return to the district court, which is bound by the ruling of the 11th Circuit Court, and will have to make any decisions in the case based on that court’s interpretation of the law.
A date for further proceedings in the case has not been set.
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