Cop-Rating Website Is Protected By The First Amendment

from the and-that's-a-good-thing dept

A couple years ago, we wrote about the controversy surrounding the website, which (as the name implies) let’s people “rate” their local police officers. While police around the country were “outraged” by this, we noted that police accountability seems like a good thing. While some complaints resulted in the site’s registrar temporarily taking the site offline, a more troubling situation developed later in Florida, where a user of the site was arrested, after he posted information (anonymously) about a police officer who he felt did not do a good job. The authorities issued a subpoena to find out who the commenter was, and charged him under a Florida law that forbids “publishing name and address of law enforcement officer.”

While the case was dropped for procedural reasons, the guy sued, noting that the arrest and the law went against his First Amendment rights. Thankfully, a judge has agreed, saying that just publishing such information is protected speech:

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.”

You can read the full ruling below, but it’s nice to see a judge note that just because some information can be used for bad purposes, doesn’t mean it’s okay to prohibit that kind of speech.

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Comments on “Cop-Rating Website Is Protected By The First Amendment”

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chris says:

Re: Senshikaze

It also seems like a terrible idea to have corrupt cops wearing the badge and carrying a gun. Corrupt, insecure, egotistical, losers. Not all cops are like this I realize, but the bad apples ruin it for all of them. And by “ruin” I mean accountability. There are no checks and balances with cops!

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Senshikaze

Rating sights like this would be useless if that were really the case and everyone would ignore them. So what you are suggesting is a self-correcting problem.

Regardless, preventing someone from speaking out about a police officer because you fear there may be other officers unfairly smeared by the tool is just an easy excuse to limit free speech.

DH's love child says:

Re: Re:

It was already out there in the open. Everybody involved conceded that he obtained the information legally. I actually found this ruling very easy to understand and refreshingly open. The judge clearly understood that while the information COULD be used by someone to threaten or harass the officer, that in and of itself was not a reason for it to be illegal. And if cops are really worried about showing up on ratemycop, maybe they should just do a good job to begin with. I’m not saying that this is a cure-all, as every cop will have at least one person who will want to complain about them, but if they are actually doing their job in an honest, professional manner, these things will sort themselves out.

DH's love child says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Not all cops are corrupt, by the way.”

Very true. Most cops aren’t corrupt, but there have been enough bad ones to give the impression that they feel like they’re all above the very laws they are supposed to be enforcing. I have friends who are cops in both small and large cities and I know that as a group they take a lot of crap.

Again, the information that he put out there was already publicly available. Anyone who wants to hurt a cop or his/her family would be able to find the information without much work anyway.

I agree that an officer’s family should never be put in harm’s way, but stifling free speech is not the way to do it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not all cops are corrupt, by the way.

But the vast, vast majority are. While they’re not all “the worst of the worst”, I’ve personally known several and not a one of them, for example, would ticket a “brother” for the same kind of minor traffic offense that they would an average citizen. And every last one of them would turn a blind eye to another cop’s abuse of power. That’s corruption and I’ve never met one who wasn’t afflicted by it, even my cop friends.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Well, I think there is a difference between posting ones opinion about a cop and posting their address. To some extent, everyone is from some profession or another and deserves some degree of privacy, but at the same time we all should be allowed to criticize those who do a poor job at something to some degree (with respect to their profession). As Mike often points out, this privacy vs free speech dichotomy is going to become an interesting legal issue and is already becoming one. Free speech can invade our privacy (ie: if a doctor just gave away all patient information) but people value both.

Perhaps we should have free speech when it comes to issues of ones profession (ie: if you’re a bad cop, if you’re a bad doctor, etc…) but not issues of one personal lives (ie: The address of a cop or doctor, social security number, phone number, perhaps if they’re not the best mother? Medical information of the cop, etc…).

Also, I do agree that posting a cops address can put them and their family in danger. I hear that whenever cops are a a restaurant or someplace similar, for example, they tend to avoid window seats in fear of getting shot. Of course if someone really hated a cop in particular and they were determined to figure out where that cop lives, I’m sure that they could figure it out regardless and no law will stop them.

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, I think there is a difference between posting ones opinion about a cop and posting their address.

I’m sorry, I simply can’t agree. What if you posted where the cop worked? Where he eats dinner? Where he plays basketball? (Hang on, it’s about to get tricky) What if you posted his next door neighbor’s address and said the cop lived one even number higher?

The judge ruled correctly. The address of this officer in and of itself is not a threat and since no law was broken by finding out the address, printing it in a comment (or, I suppose, anywhere else) is not illegal.

DH's love child says:

Re: Re:

He didn’t make a law, he interpreted the law as it was written which is the judicial branch’s function. He ruled that the law as it was written violated the constitution, no more than that. He gave reasons why it was in violation, and very general suggestions of how to fix it, but he did not rewrite the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Funny how the judge thinks he can decide what types of speech are protected by the 1st amendment.

Umm, that’s a judge’s job.

Where in the constitution was that authority listed? I think the “SHALL MAKE NO LAW” part is pretty clear

Seriously? It sounds like you’ve never actually read the US Constitution if you aren’t aware of the authority granted by it to the judicial branch.

Jeremy says:

City of Tallahassee??

Why does this not surprise me to see that it is the City of Tallahassee Police department? What a bunch of incompetent fools that refuse to accept any accountability. After what happened to Rachel Hoffman and how they dragged her name through the mud, they deserve to have a full independent audit. What a bunch of lawless criminals.

Nastybutler77 (profile) says:

How about punishing the criminals?

To those of you getting all worked up about the cop and the cop’s family being in danger with the posting of public information: If there are people who would do them harm, they’ll do it regardless. If/when that happens then you punish those responsible for the crime committed, not the person who published the information.

Besides, a cop is better equiped to handle a violent criminal who would do them harm than most other people would be.

Remember that nutjob in Seattle last year who killed all those cops at that restaurant? He didn’t need to know where they lived to kill them, so if someone makes the decision to kill a particular cop or just random ones, he’ll find a way to do it, with or without an address posted on a website’s comments.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

I know it’s a small step to get an address based on a name, but I don’t EVER like when a rating site, rant, complaint, or whatever includes the acusee’s home address.

To me, that just comes a little to close to “inducement”. And what relevance does the address have to the complaint? Usually zero.

To say “Officer George Bailey of Pottersville treated me poorly at a roadside stop as follows…..” seems like a fair and legal police comportment review site comment. But to include his home address makes it personal.

Same goes here on the blog. Anybody that I get in an argument with here at Techdirt could easily look up my home address. It’s seldom hard to find. But if somebody flamed me and put in my home address, I would take that as a threat to my family. It rings of the menacing, “We know where you live.”

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m not sure how that’s related. You are comparing how an arm of gov’t/police treat felons convicted of being a public threat with how we should treat innocent citizens. Instead, I would choose to discuss each of those cases separately, which sounds like common sense.

And in the case of the registered offenders, I’ll note that they don’t provide addresses on the registries I’ve searched, just vague “near here” dots on a map.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’m not sure how that’s related.

Did you not write “…I don’t EVER like when a rating site, rant, complaint, or whatever includes the acusee’s home address”, or was that another Derek Kerton?

Instead, I would choose to discuss each of those cases separately, which sounds like common sense.

Yes, I imagine you would as it would make your previous “EVER” statement look less idiotic. Sorry, you already wrote it.

And in the case of the registered offenders, I’ll note that they don’t provide addresses on the registries I’ve searched, just vague “near here” dots on a map.

And I’ll note that you seem to be pretty ignorant of the situation. The ones I’ve seen give the person’s full name, known aliases, date of birth, convictions (with dates), photograph/mugshot, and full addresses. That doesn’t seem very “vague” to me.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“Did you not write “…I don’t EVER like when a rating site, rant, complaint, or whatever includes the ACCUSEE’s home address”

I suppose I actually can understand the ambiguity, but I don’t see a court-confirmed list of CONVICTED sexual predators as the same thing as a rating, rant, or complaint site against ACCUSED bad cops. And only part of it is that whole “innocent until proven guilty” concept.

“make your previous “EVER” statement look less idiotic. Sorry”

Damn. You are very angry. I wonder why. I mean, it’s not like I was even talking in absolutes. I think this subject is a lot like porn, in that what is “right” is hard to nail down, and is in the eye of the beholder. I mean, I wrote my three points in about as subjective a way as I could “to me…come close…usually…seems like…I would choose…sounds like common sense”. There are valid arguments on both sides of the sexual offender directory issue. I, personally, don’t think there are as many valid arguments FOR listing the addresses of cops on a cop review site. Does that really make you so angry?

The idea behind listing the convicts is that their presence might actually statistically increase you family’s risk to sex crime if you live nearby. I don’t see living a few doors down from a jerk cop as similarly dangerous. I also believe that convicts merit some occasionally different treatment. For example, citizens in the US are “free”, but convicts are sometimes put in jail. I am OK with a measured amount of this inequity, if justly administered. You, apparently, don’t find that to be common sense. Fair enough.

“And I’ll note that you seem to be pretty ignorant…full addresses”

Wow. Still so angry. Listen, bro. I never claimed to be an expert on Registries, you’re the one who inserted that into the thread. In fact, I stated the limitation of my knowledge as “they don’t provide addresses on the registries I’ve searched”. I limited my claim to my experience about the registries, since I’m not a fucktard who talks out of his depth.

I’m in CA, and here, is the operative law. It basically splits our opinions, offering addresses for about half of the offenders, and about half not.

So, my points are:
– I don’t see sex offender listings in the same light as cop review sites.
– I see high relevance for citizens knowing the address of the sex offenders, but low relevance for the cop review site.
– I see free speech (disclosing the address) as an opposing force, and thus cannot speak in absolutes
– the sex offender registries hide the addresses of many of the convicts, yet the same obscurity is not offered the cop in the original post.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I absolutely think cops should be held up to scrutiny but publishing their home address and phone numbers is WAY out of line.

Shouldn’t that apply to everyone then? Shouldn’t phone books be illegal? It’s only “common sense”!

It’s a matter of common sense for the safety of the officer and his family.

“Police officer” is far from the most dangerous occupation in America. In fact, it doesn’t even rank in the top 10.

Annony says:

If people can post cops mailing address/phone number. Then it should be ok for cops to post the same + comments on every person arrested. Or for a doc to post the same on patients under the idea that it is their first ammendment right and is info freely available. Where does it stop. People’s personal info is personal for a good reason. For cops it’s their safety & that of their family

Any Mouse says:

Re: Re:

Your home address? Yeah, that’s not personal. That’s public. Your phone number? Unless you pay for it to be unpublished, that’s going to be public info, too. Cops are free to do what they want ON THEIR FREE TIME. Doctors? Well, they’re not allowed to post any details on their patients without their patients’ permission, anyways (Re: HIPAA).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If people can post cops mailing address/phone number. Then it should be ok for cops to post the same + comments on every person arrested.

Heh, way to prove you don’t know what you’re talking about. My local police dept DOES post arrest records and I’ve never know of one that didn’t, either.

Where does it stop.

When you stop worshiping cops.

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