Arkansas sheriff puts clowns on notice; won’t tolerate scaring folks, he says

Cross County Sheriff J.R. Smith isn't clowning around.

He won't tolerate people dressing up as scary clowns in his county and indicated that he will arrest them and charge them with harassment.

Smith issued a statement Wednesday after he received numerous calls and texts about four men dressed as clowns who were riding in a car last weekend on West Merriman Avenue in Wynne. The clowns, he said, were "bloody-faced" and "scary."

"I'm not talking about the Bozos or the Ronald McDonald clowns," Smith said. "They're OK. It's the evil, scary clowns who have the intent to scare and harass people."

Smith isn't joking. He said he will arrest those bedecked in the "non-family-style" clown outfits, take them to the sheriff's office in Wynne and charge them with harassment or disorderly conduct.

"By no means do I want to impede anyone's effort for doing something like holding a clown party or to dress up for Halloween," the sheriff said. "But to do it to cause fear in the general public won't be tolerated."

University of Arkansas at Fayetteville associate law professor Danielle D. Weatherby said wearing clown outfits -- even if horrific in nature -- is not grounds for arrest.

"The premise is that people are free to express themselves under the First Amendment," she said. "It's not criminal in terms of expression. What you wear, without conduct, cannot be criminalized.

"Someone else's subjected fear is not grounds for any arrest."

The sighting follows a rash of "scary clown" reports across the country. A more popular, widespread one began in Green Bay, Wis., in April when photographs of a fanged clown appeared on a Facebook page and received national news attention.

Clown sightings also have been reported in other states, including South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Maryland.

And the clown scare has reached Arkansas.

A White Hall police officer was disciplined after he posed for a photograph while wearing a clown costume Sept. 20. Dustin Summers, a resource officer at the White Hall School District's elementary school, "made a bad judgment call," Mickey Buffkin, an investigator with the White Hall Police Department, said. The clown picture appeared on social media.

A Trumann man was arrested Sunday after he drove around the Poinsett County town and taunted a store clerk while wearing a clown mask, according to police. A police report described the mask as "very scary looking ... with large teeth ... and a very creepy smile."

Stephen King popularized the fanged jokester in his horror novel It, which was released in 1986. In the book, the being that terrorizes children primarily appears in the form of a clown.

When contacted last week by the Bangor News about recent clown sightings, King wrote to the newspaper, "If I saw a clown lurking under a lonely bridge, I'd be scared too."

The wave of creepy costumed jesters has hurt the reputation of professional clowns, said Pam Moody, incoming president of the World Clown Association.

"Horror clowns are not professional clowns," said Moody of Des Moines, Iowa. "Clowning is a true art form. It's not to scare people, but to amuse them."

Smith said he believes the 30th anniversary of King's novel this year is driving recent "evil clown" sightings.

"Kids are scared by these clowns," the sheriff said. "Whatever the reason is, if someone wants to dress up and scare people, we won't tolerate it."

State Desk on 09/29/2016

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