Passport Branding is Scarlet Letter Grandstanding

lenore skenazyBY LENORE SKENAZY | One day after President Obama signed legislation that will brand the passports of sex offenders, a federal court challenge was filed against it.

The International Megan’s Law is supposedly a way to alert foreign countries to sex offenders who may be traveling there for sex tourism or trafficking purposes. Of course, who isn’t against sex trafficking? We all are! But branding people’s passports isn’t going to do any good. The U.S. Department of State itself found that the law’s rationale is “very misleading.” And after conducting a study, the General Accounting Office “found no evidence that the offenders used their passports to commit sex offenses abroad.”

Got that? No. Evidence.

But heck — what’s a complete lack of evidence compared to political grandstanding? The bill was sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R–NJ) and passed both houses with only a single, brave lawmaker, Rep. Bobby Scott (D–VA), speaking out against it. He said that he endorsed the bill’s provisions to notify foreign countries about sex offenders’ travel plans, but was repulsed by the idea of the “unique passport identifier” — government-speak for passport branding.

“It is simply bad policy to single out one category of offenses for this type of treatment,” Scott told the House. “We do not subject those who murder, who defraud the government or our fellow citizens of millions and billions, or who commit acts of terrorism to these restrictions.”

Terrorists? Pffft. It is only sex offenders who must declare their past deeds this way. And that is what the court challenge is hinged upon.

“We don’t want those ‘identifiers’ on anybody’s passport,” says lawyer Janice Bellucci, president of the group California Reform Sex Offender Laws, who is filing the federal challenge on behalf of four sex offenders.

“Our strongest argument is that it violates the First Amendment, because that ‘unique identifier’ is compelled speech.”

In other words, “The government is making you say something you don’t want to say.”

Bellucci has been down this legal road before. Twice she argued against California towns forcing sex offenders to put “No Trick-or-Treating” signs on their doors, and twice she won. A third time she sued the California Department of Corrections for the same thing. The department had told registrants they had to put that sign on their doors on Halloween. And if they didn’t have a home and lived in a tent, well by golly, they had to put a “No Trick-or-Treating” sign on their tent flap. And if they were living in a sleeping bag at the side of the road, they had to put a “No trick-or-treating” sign on their sleeping bag, too.

Presumably this would help fend off the hordes of children seeking bite-size Snickers from the homeless. Bellucci won that case, too.

Like candy-doling, Halloween-activated predators in sleeping bags, the problem of registrants traveling abroad for sex tourism is also not a common one. Chris Smith has written that, “currently tens of thousands of offenders could be traveling abroad as child sex tourists.”

But they aren’t.

The U.S. Justice Department itself says that about 10 Americans a year are convicted of “sex crimes against minors in other countries.” Meantime, there are more than 800,000 people on the Sex Offender Registry — about a quarter of them minors. This means that the vast majority of registrants — at least 790,990 one of them — are not sex tourists. And yet we won’t give them the basic right of traveling this great earth.

The United States has never branded anyone’s passport until now. Somehow we have survived 200+ years of giving all citizens the right to serve their time and then go on with their lives. Former drug dealers can travel south of the border. The Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 crews can hop on a plane to Monaco. But sex offenders, including teens who sexted and former flashers now in their 80s, will be branded with the scarlet “S” and kept in internal exile. It is for the sake of the children, of course.

It always is.

Lenore Skenazy authored the book, and founded the blog, Free-Range Kids (freerangekids.com). She is also a contributor at reason.com.