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Federal Court Strikes Down Florida Statute That Criminalized Free Speech when Criticizing Police Officers

May 3, 2010

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
May 3, 2010

CONTACT:
Brandon Hensler, Director of Communications, (786) 363-2737 or media@aclufl.org

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today announced a victory in its lawsuit challenging Florida’s law making it illegal to publish information about law enforcement officials on public Web sites. The decision, issued late Friday by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Smoak, is being hailed by the ACLU as a victory for free speech in Florida.

The court held that while the state has a compelling interest in protecting law enforcement officers from the threat of bodily harm, the Florida statute went further and allowed the state to punish criticism of police officers.

"It cannot be a crime to publish truthful information,” said Randall Marshall, ACLU of Florida Legal Director, who cheered the court’s decision. “With very rare exceptions, courts protect the publication of truthful information that is already available to the public.”

In 2008, Tallahassee resident Rob Brayshaw was arrested after he posted the home address, telephone number and other personal information about a Tallahassee police officer on the Web site www.ratemycop.com.

In addition to the personal information that Brayshaw posted online, he also criticized the performance of the police officer. The personal information Brayshaw posted was obtained from already-public Web sites via internet searches.

In his comments on the Web site, Brayshaw characterized Officer Annette Garrett as being verbally abusive, rude and unprofessional, pointing to an investigation she had conducted regarding him for trespassing as a property manager. No charges were brought against him as a result of that investigation.

Brayshaw posted Garrett’s home address, cell phone number and age, all of which were publicly available on the internet. He was arrested, charged and prosecuted twice under Florida Statute 843.17, which criminalizes the publication of a police officer’s name, address and/or phone number without permission of the police department.

The Florida Statute reads:

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.

The criminal charges against Brayshaw were dismissed due to the state’s failure to meet the speedy trial act requirements under Florida law.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sued the City of Tallahassee and the Leon County State Attorney on Brayshaw’s behalf, claiming that the statute violated his rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Smoak (N.D. Fla.) agreed with the ACLU’s argument and declared Fla. Stat. 843.17 unconstitutional. The order prevents enforcement of the statute and orders the City of Tallahassee to pay Brayshaw twenty-five thousand dollars to cover his attorneys’ fees, court costs and damages.

James K. Green, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Florida, who was co-counsel in the case, noted: “This Florida statute is but one in a long series of statutes that have tried to limit speech that is critical of public officials. The courts have again driven home the point that the First Amendment protects the right to criticize public officials.”

Brayshaw was represented by Randall Marshall, James K. Green of West Palm Beach, and ACLU cooperating attorney Anne Swerlick of the ACLU of Florida’s Tallahassee Chapter.

View the court’s order in PDF online here.  

About the ACLU of Florida
The ACLU of Florida is freedom’s watchdog, working daily in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend individual rights and personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For additional information, visit our web site at: www.aclufl.org.

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2010 Press Releases

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