I recently received an email from the wife of a person listed on the public sex offense registry in a small town in Washington State. She was immensely concerned about seeing a pickup truck parked at a local business sporting a decal portraying a man shooting a kneeling man, execution-style, in the back of the head, with the caption reading, “Shoot Your Local Pedophile.”
(The truck also displayed a #SaveOurChildren sticker, a QAnon slogan adopted from Anita Bryant’s defunct anti-homosexuality crusades.)
She voiced her concerns to her local authorities. They dismissed the concerns as free speech, and it was of no more concern than someone offended over a “Jesus Saves” bumper sticker.
But this is more than a free speech issue. It threatens lives.
Research has consistently shown most sex crimes occur in the home, by someone known to the victim, and most arrests are of those without a past conviction for a sex offense. In addition, very few people listed on the public registries are “pedophiles” or repeat offenders, and the already low re-offense rates can be reduced further by providing opportunities to allow those who completed a sentence to become productive members of society.
Yet, we still believe that everyone listed on the registry is an imminent danger to society or an uncontrollable “pedophile.” Thus, we turn a blind eye to speech that promotes violence against people listed on public registries.
Hate speech and other offensive language is protected by the First Amendment, which allows groups as Westboro Baptist Church, the KKK, and QAnon to promote hatred against otherwise protected groups.
There are, however, some limits to “Freedom of Speech.”
In Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), the Supreme Court ruled speech is not protected if “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
Does displaying a bumper sticker calling for citizens to murder “pedophiles” incite violence?
Those who reform the registry believe this is plausible. In September, the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws called for major retailers such as eBay, Etsy, Amazon, and Facebook to stop allowing merchandise promoting violence against Registered Persons to be sold on their websites.
Results were mixed; some offensive items were removed, but most items that were reported have remained on the retailers’ websites. One independent merchant from Indiana responded to complaints by telling people to “F**k Off,” encouraging suicide, and threatened to dox and assault complainers.
These groups have good reason to be concerned about the sales of such inflammatory items. In May 2020, an Omaha man armed with a gun and data taken from the Nebraska registry and a Facebook vigilante group murdered a Registered Person. The vigilante group sold T-Shirts on Facebook to raise money for the killer’s defense.
Washington State in particular has been a hotspot for vigilante violence against people listed on the public sex offense registry. In 2005, Michael Anthony Mullen used data from the state’s sex offense registry to murder two Registered Persons. One of his cellmates was a career criminal named Patrick Drum, who also used the sex offense registry to murder two Registered Persons in 2012.
In 2008, Tammy Lee Gibson was declared a hero for an unprovoked attack on a Registrant in Puyallup; she served only 90 days.
Furthermore, the QAnon conspiracy has revised long-debunked conspiracy theories of a vast underground cabal of cannibalistic, Satanic pedophiles controlling the world. In response, numerous “#SaveOurChildren” rallies have sprung up across the country.
Among other things, these rallies promote stronger penalties for people convicted of sexual offenses.
Many signs spotted at these rallies hold signs like “Sex Offender Lives Don’t Matter” or making memes that suggest torturing and/ or killing people on the sex offense registry.
Some of these rallies have been suspected of engaging in criminal activity. In the small town of Washington, Iowa, a group calling themselves “132 Feet” began protesting a Registrant in the area, holding signs proclaiming “A Child Molester Lives Here” along with the QAnon slogan “Save Our Children.”
The Registrant reported multiple threats and acts of vandalism by this group; one of these protesters was later arrested for making online threats and exposing himself to the Registrant.
Now, imagine the outrage if these retailers sold a bumper sticker that suggested we shoot our local Christians, Jewish people, racial minorities, LGBTQ+, Republicans, Democrats, gun owners, law enforcement officers, Veterans, children, or politicians. Currently, they do not sell items with similar slogans for these protected groups, but have many policies prohibiting sales of items deemed offensive or promoting violence and hate.
On eBay, it is against policy to sell copies of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” unless it includes a critical commentary. Facebook has similar policies, but listed an exception in their Terms of Service for comments directed to those accused or convicted of sexual offenses. (Facebook removed that exception only after a Washington Examiner article exposed this exception to the rule.)
Why should this policy be any different for people who have served time and are struggling to become productive members of society?
Life on the public sex offense registry is already difficult. Registered Persons are already socially ostracized and struggle to find housing, employment, and other basic needs. Openly encouraging violence against Registrants benefits no one.
Crimes against Registered Persons are crimes nonetheless. Social media outlets and online retailers should be held accountable for encouraging criminal activity if allowed to continue selling merchandise actively encouraging violence, and legislators should be encouraged to add reasonable protections for Registered Persons and their loved ones.
Derek W. Logue is a Nebraska registrant and activist for the rights of returning citizens, and founder of the sex offense education and reform website OnceFallen.com.