Ban On Sex Offenders Entering Public Libraries May Be Unconstitutional

Dirty old men, get the hell out of our libraries.

That's basically the gist of a press release Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett's office sent out late Monday morning, announcing that all registered sex offenders are prevented from stepping foot inside a Knox County library ever again.

"We are telling these predators to stay away or go to jail. No exceptions. No excuses," Burchett is quoted as saying in the press release.

"I applaud the state of Tennessee for putting tougher regulations on these dirt bags who prey on our children, and I'm pleased that the Knox County Library system has a policy in place that will help protect the public," reads a quote from Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones.

The new policy, which still allows registered sex offenders to check out materials provided someone else does it for them, was ostensibly put in place to comply with a new state law. However, the law doesn't actually require any such action.

The text of SB 710, which passed both the state House and Senate unanimously in May, adds a new section to the Tennessee Code Annotated that reads:

"(a) Public library directors shall have the authority to reasonably restrict the access of any person listed on the sexual offender registry.

"(b) In determining the reasonableness of the restrictions, the director shall consider the following criteria:

"(1) The likelihood of children being present in the library at the times and places to be restricted;

"(2) The age of the victim of the offender; and

"(3) The chilling effect of the use of the library by other patrons if the offender is not restricted.

"(c) Nothing in this section shall prevent a total ban of the offender's access to a public library so long as the criteria in subsection (b) are considered."

The law also provides that a written notice of the restrictions must be mailed to the offender, and that anyone violating the restrictions can be prosecuted for criminal trespass. But there's nothing in the law that requires any library to take any action, and there's nothing in the law that requires a complete and total ban of all registered sex offenders, many of whom are not child molesters.

According to Library Advisory Board member Brooks Clark, the library administration was unaware of the legislation until a few weeks ago, when a man told library staff that he was a sex offender and asked what their policy was. Clark says the board discussed the issue at its last meeting but was unaware that an official policy had been set in place until the news broke Monday.

Clark, an occasional writer for this publication, didn't state an opinion of the policy, but board member Lauren Rider says she has concerns about the new rule.

"I am a parent, and obviously I wouldn't want to expose my children to predators, but I'm also a librarian and so I'm always concerned about access to information," Rider says.

She also brings up the fact that not every registered sex offender is a child molester. "I worry about situations like if you have a 19-year-old who was convicted of statutory rape for having sex with someone two years younger or something, and he's trying to better himself and needs to use the library to study for tests. I find it hard to say that someone like that should be banned."

Burchett says that isn't his problem.

"I don't know what they've pled down to," he explains in a phone interview, noting that some offenders were originally charged with more serious crimes. "What about the rights of the innocent children whose lives have been ruined? What about the innocent woman who has been raped? What about their rights?"

Burchett says he has zero concerns that he is violating the rights of sex offenders and isn't worried about a lawsuit. The mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., issued a similar edict to Burchett's in 2008, and the ACLU of New Mexico filed suit. The regulation was found unconstitutional in 2010, and the city's libraries now allow access to registered sex offenders two days a week, provided they check in with security officers and avoid the children's section.

Burchett says the county was aware of the New Mexico lawsuit, which is why the Knox County policy still allows sex offenders to check out materials and access the library website. When it was pointed out that many people patronize the library specifically to use the free computers, Burchett again says it isn't his problem. "They can go to a friend's house and use the friend's computer," he says.

But a glance at the court ruling in the New Mexico case makes it seem likely that the county could indeed have a lawsuit on its hands. The ruling states, "the City's regulation is far more expansive than would appear necessary to combat the unquestionably legitimate evil the City has identified" and specifically states that the plaintiff's lack of access to the library itself—the in-house reference materials, the periodicals, the meetings and lectures held there—"does not leave open ample alternative channels for communication of information ... [and] therefore creates ‘an unacceptable risk of the suppression of ideas.'"

Knox County is the only major library system in the state to have implemented a policy change based on the new law. The director of the Nashville Public Library was unavailable for comment, but the head of the Memphis library system says they are currently seeking guidance from the city's attorneys before even considering how to approach the situation.

Eva Johnston, the director of the Chattanooga library system, says they are taking a similar wait-and-see approach.

"We're very curious as to how [Knoxville] will enforce it," Johnston says. "It's a library. You don't ask for identification from everyone who walks in the door."

Indeed, enforcement does seem to be a big question. There's now a sign up on the entrances to all the library branches saying that registered sex offenders are banned, but when a librarian at the South Knoxville branch was asked how he would know if someone was a sex offender, he laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "No idea. Just no idea."

Library director Myretta Black seemed confused when questioned about the policy's implementation. She said that the sex offender registry would not be cross-checked against the database of library patrons, but in an interview a couple of hours later, Burchett said it would be.

Black also said she was counting on some sex offenders to self-identify themselves. When it was pointed out to her that a sex offender breaking the law by physically visiting the library was unlikely to point out to library staff that he or she was breaking the law, Black said that other patrons would identify the sex offenders. Burchett said concerned parents would notify the library staff when they saw sex offenders after studying their pictures online.

"It's a new policy and we'll refine our procedures as we go along," Black says.

According to the sheriff's office, there are 323 registered sex offenders in the city of Knoxville and Knox County. It remains to be seen how many of them will still want to use the library.