The Knox County library system (Facebook) has barred anyone on Tennessee's sex offender's registry from entering any of its branches. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett (Facebook), in consultation with library officials, came up with the policy after a state law allowing restrictions on sex criminals took effect July 1.
Knox County's library system is the first in the state to adopt a policy under the new law. Anyone on the state's sexual offender's registry who enters a Knox County library branch could face a charge of criminal trespassing. The policy allows sex offenders to check out materials through a proxy and to contact reference librarians by phone or email to get information from other library materials.
The county has a compelling interest in protecting children against sexual predators (but not all ex-sex offenders are child molesters and/or sexual predators), and we applaud Burchett for taking the initiative. However, though the desire to protect the youngest and most vulnerable of our society is important, more needs to be done to make sure the policy can stand up in court (and if a true predator wanted to harm a child in a library, they would, no law or library policy would prevent that). As it's now written, the policy appears overly broad and might not be able to withstand a legal challenge (if the Constitution was still worth anything, then yeah, this would be unconstitutional. What is next, banning ex-sex offenders from stores to get food, because kids are present?).
The authorizing legislation lists three criteria that must be considered before restricting anyone's access: The policy must consider the likelihood of children being present at any given time, the age of the offender's victim and the possible chilling effect on other patrons if the offender were allowed access to the library.
The Knox County policy, which doesn't call for a review of the age of the offender's victim, falls short of the criteria established by the Legislature.
Federal courts have given libraries a special status as First Amendment forums. Last year a federal judge struck down a similar ban in Albuquerque, N.M., on grounds that it violated the First Amendment rights of those on that state's registry, primarily because the policy was overly broad.
Like the Knox County policy, the Albuquerque policy applied to all sex offenders, not just those convicted of crimes against children (even if the person did commit a crime against a child, it's still unconstitutional. Like said above, are stores, gas stations, public restrooms, and other places next?). The local policy must be viewed as being equally vulnerable in court. The American Civil Liberties Union, which won the challenge to the Albuquerque law, has sent a letter to Burchett asking that the policy be rescinded.
There's an easy solution short of rescinding the policy, and one that we urge Burchett to adopt. The policy could be modified to ban offenders whose victims were younger than 18 when the crime was committed. That would narrow the ban to offenders who might target children, satisfying the state requirement that age be taken into account while not being too restrictive of First Amendment rights. All officials would have to do is check the court file of any registered sex offender who has a library card (but what if this was a Romeo & Juliet situation, or was many years ago without the person committing another crime?).
Banning from the county's libraries sex offenders who have victimized children is prudent (I disagree), but the policy as written invites costly litigation the county could lose. A narrower policy would be stronger in court and achieve the goal of protecting Knox County's youth.