Judge Rules Post on Cop-Rating Site is Protected Speech
By David Kravets
May 5, 2010
A federal judge has struck down a Florida law prohibiting the publication of a police officer’s name, phone number or address, calling the statute an unconstitutional restraint on speech.
The decision leaves Arizona, Colorado and Washington state with similar laws on the books. Florida authorities said Wednesday they were mulling whether to appeal.
...Robert Brayshaw, a 35-year-old apartment manager, brought the challenge to Florida’s law after he was briefly jail in 2008 for posting personally identifying information of a Tallahassee police officer on RateMyCop.com — a 2-year-old website that lets users rate and comment on the uniformed police officers in their community.
RateMyCop uses public records requests to gather the names and, in some cases, badge numbers of thousands of uniformed cops at police departments around the country, and allows users to post comments about police they’ve interacted with. The site’s launch in 2008 drew cries of outrage from police, who complained that they’d be put at risk if their names were on the internet.
Brayshaw used the site to post anonymous comments about Tallahassee Police Officer Annette Garrett, as well as her name and home address — information not normally cataloged by the site. He wrote that Garrett was rude to him when investigating a trespass call at an apartment complex he was managing.
“He had been investigated for a possible trespass charge, which he was never arrested for,” Brayshaw’s attorney, Anne Swerlick, said in a telephone interview. “He was unsatisfied by the way he was treated.”
The authorities subpoenaed RateMyCop and Brayshaw’s internet service provider to learn his identity, then booked him under the Florida law — a misdemeanor carrying up to a year in jail. The case was later dismissed against Brayshaw for procedural reasons, but he sued, claiming the statute chills his speech.
U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak in Tallahassee agreed, and awarded Brayshaw $25,000 in damages plus legal fees Friday.
The judge ruled the First Amendment does not protect “true threats, fighting words, incitements to imminent lawless action, and classes of lewd and obscene speech.” But publishing an officer’s phone number and address, he said, “is not in itself a threat or serious expression of an intent to commit an unlawful act of violence” (.pdf).
Smoak wrote that he appreciated the intent of the 38-year-old law, but noted that it went too far. “While the state interest of protecting police officers from harm or death may be compelling,” the judge said the law “was not narrowly tailored to serve this interest.”
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