Stop “IT”: Does Clowning Around Violate the Law?


By: Kevin Stone

Recently, like whack-a-mole, creepy clowns have been popping up throughout the country in unusual places, as reported here, here, and here.  In some instances, their presence is simply eerie—“A woman walking home late one night said she had seen a ‘large-figured’ clown waving at her from under a streetlight.”  Another saw a fully-dressed clown standing outside a laundromat staring at her.  In other instances, the reports graduate to downright disturbing—“Several children said that clowns were offering them money to follow them into the woods.”  The appearances began in South Carolina, but are spreading throughout the country.

Earlier this week, the clown influence reportedly spread to Georgia as reported here and here.  The LaGrange Police Department responded swiftly, warning, “if officers see this behavior, you’re going to have a conversation with them. And, if applicable, you may face criminal charges,” which begs the question, is it a crime to simply dress like a clown while engaged in otherwise lawful behavior?

Georgia’s “anti-mask statute” may shed light on the issue.  It provides that “[a] person is guilty of a misdemeanor when he wears a mask, hood, or device by which any portion of the face is so hidden, concealed, or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer and is upon any public way or public property or upon the private property of another without the written permission of the owner or occupier of the property to do so.”  O.C.G.A. § 16-11-38.  Not surprisingly, the statute has several exceptions and permits people to wear masks for safety reasons, in sporting activities, and in theatrical productions, among others.  Notably, the exception for wearing a “traditional holiday costume” applies only “on the occasion of the holiday.”

In 1990, in State v. Miller, 260 Ga. 669, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the 65-year-old anti-mask statute as constitutional.  Although the statute was passed in response to “a period of increased harassment, intimidation and violence against racial and religious minorities carried out by mask-wearing Klansmen and other ‘hate’ organizations,” its application should extend to other forms of harassment and intimidation—even in the form of clown costumes.  Thus, if an officer observes a clown (or Crazy Joe Davola in his Pagliacci getup), the officer may be justified in enforcing the law.  Officers should keep in mind, however, that there may be lawful reasons for donning clown costumes.  In any event, would-be clowns may want to think twice before planning their next caper, lest they end up behind bars (looking like a bozo).