KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Knox County, Tenn., mayor has banned sex offenders from county libraries, and, as critics call the act potentially unconstitutional, he says he doesn't care what anyone thinks.
"I'll take some heat and I realize that, and I know that a lot of folks are going to come to the defense of the poor child molesters and poor rapists, but I'm not going to be one of them," Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said. "I have no sympathy whatsoever for them. They can go to a bookstore."
In a Sept. 12 announcement, Burchett said no one on the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry is allowed inside county libraries. He said they can still use the system's online services and have a proxy check out and return materials on their behalf. They face misdemeanor criminal trespass charges if they are caught in the buildings.
On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee asked him to withdraw the policy. In a one-page letter, the ACLU said the mayor's new rule is "overly broad and raises a host of constitutional issues."
Some Tennessee leaders and library officials also question whether r Tim Burchett went too far this week when he banned sex offenders from county libraries.
Officials have begun comparing the state's sex offender list with the library system's 150,000 active cardholders. So far, the county has found two matches. Letters were mailed to both, telling them to stay away, according to the county. Notices also have been posted at the entrances to all 19 county libraries.
The county is taking advantage of a state law that passed unanimously earlier this year and took effect July 1. The law gives public library directors the authority to "reasonably restrict the access of any person listed on the sexual offender registry," which includes those convicted of a number of crimes, like rape, child molestation, statutory rape, sexual battery and solicitation to commit aggravated prostitution.
Democratic State Sen. Tim Barnes, the bill author and Senate sponsor, said Burchett was within his right to issue a ban.
"Discretion is one of those things where you and I will disagree, and there will be differences of opinion over how it will be exercised," said Barnes. "But most important, it gives librarians legal authority to control the access that sex offenders have to libraries."
He added that small libraries without a separate children's area that can't easily be monitored probably should outright ban offenders.
State Rep. John Tidwell, a Democrat, however, said the intention was not to ban offenders. The point was to give library directors "the authority to ask them to come back at a later time when there is not a gathering of kids," the House sponsor said Wednesday.
"I wanted the librarians to have some leeway about what they can do," said Tidwell.
Officials in Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga said they are monitoring Knox County's initiative but don't expect to implement it. Top library representatives said they have yet to have an incident beyond someone exposing themselves, and they already question and monitor any lone adult who goes into a children's area.
"I wonder how (Knox County) is going to enforce this," said Eva Johnston, interim director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library system. "Unless they're checking IDs at the door and comparing them to the list, it's probably not going to work."
Officials with the Tennessee Library Association, a statewide, non-profit advocate for libraries, say libraries already have policies in place to protect children, and so long as visitors follow the rules, they should be given access.
"The new law gives the director a tool for people who are misbehaving and not allow them access," said TLA President Wendy Cornelisen, adding that some libraries offer programs that are not found online.
She said her organization is "observing the situation" in Knox County and could "potentially write a letter, asking them to reconsider."
Officials also questioned whether Burchett's new rule was constitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against Albuquerque, N.M., when officials there banned sex offenders from libraries. The U.S. District Court shot down the city's law.
Burchett, though, says the New Mexico case is different because the mayor cut off all access, but in Knox County, they can still use online services.
"This will be just another time the ACLU gets after me," he said. "But I don't care what the ACLU thinks. I don't set my moral compass by the ACLU's parameters."