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Florida cops no longer shielded from public shaming

Forget Consumer Reports — the Internet bypasses professional reviewers.and lets regular people share their experiences with everything from cars to hotels to police officers. But not everybody likes to have bad reviews of their performance available to the public. In Florida, cops got their pet politicians to pass a law making it legally perilous to get too specific when giving thumbs-down to uniformed arm-twisters. That law is now a thing of the past, tossed out as a First amendment violation by a federal judge.

In 2008, after an unpleasant encounter with the police during his performance of his job as a property manager, Robert Brayshaw posted a negative review of Tallahassee Police Officer Annette Garrett on Ratemycop.com, along with identifying personal details, including her residential address.

Even though the posted information was all gleaned from public sources, Brayshaw ran afoul of a state law criminalizing the publication of a police officer’s address and phone number.

Any person who shall maliciously, with intent to obstruct the due execution of the law or with the intent to intimidate, hinder, or interrupt any law enforcement officer in the legal performance of his or her duties, publish or disseminate the residence address or telephone number of any law enforcement officer while designating the officer as such, without authorization of the agency which employs the officer, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.

Subsequently, Brayshaw was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. Represented by the American Civil  Liberties Union, he sued.

Note that the law protects only police officers, and only when they are identified as such. Under the law, you could publish your dentist’s address, or even Annette Garrett’s address if you omitted her occupation. The law is explicitly crafted to shield the state’s enforcers.

As deferential as the courts usually are to law-enforcement officers, the Florida law went too far for U.S. District Court Judge Richard Smoak. In his ruling (PDF), he noted that the courts have long held that the government can criminalize the publication of information only under very specific circumstances, including explicit threats.

Simply publishing an officer’s phone number, address, and e-mail address is not in itself a threat or serious expression of an intent to commit an unlawful act of violence. Indeed, the word “threat” appears nowhere in § 843.17, nor was there any threat of violence made by Plaintiff in conjunction with his posting of Officer Garrett’s address and phone number.

Even if Brayshaw intended to intimidate Officer Garrett, such intimidation is legally protected and doesn’t constitute a “true threat.”

Moreover, there’s a clear value to allowing the public to publicize identifying information about police officers.

The publication of truthful personal information about police officers is linked to the issue of police accountability through aiding in achieving service of process, researching criminal history of officers, organizing lawful pickets, and other peaceful and lawful forms of civic involvement that publicize the issue.

Both because the law proscribes protected speech and is not narrowly tailored, Judge Smoak found it “unconstitutional and invalid.”

Which means that Florida residents can go back to publicizing their expriences with police officers with the same freedom under which they review doctors and dishwashers.

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