Monday, May 26, 2003

A federal Judge has struck down a law that prohibited publishing personal information about public officials.

"The law, enacted last year, made it illegal for anyone to disseminate personal information about law enforcement-related employees if it was being done for malicious reasons.
But U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, the chief federal judge in Seattle, ruled it unconstitutional Thursday, assailing the state attorney general and King County prosecutor for making such weak arguments in suppressing free speech and finding their positions "troubling."
'This court does not intend to minimize the real fear of harm and intimidation,' Coughenour wrote. 'However ... in this society, we do not quash fear by increasing government power, proscribing those constitutional principles and silencing those speakers of whom the majority disapproves."

Want to know some of the positions that the judge found troubling? Of course you do. Read on.

"Kirkland police and the sheriff's office had unsuccessfully tried to sue the programmers -- Kirkland, to stop them from publishing the information and King County, to stop them from obtaining it.
The Legislature unanimously passed the law last spring, though a King County Superior Court judge and an appeals court ruled in Sheehan's favor that the First Amendment protects disseminating the legally obtained information. Even so, the governor promptly signed the bill.
State Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, said yesterday that legislators would try to come up with another way to protect police officers' personal information, especially from Sheehan. 'It makes me sick what he's been able to get away with."

So they passed a law even though a court already found that this was constitutionally protected speech, & the Senator is mad because the state got its hand slapped for being naughty. What the Senator perhaps doesn't realize, or more likely doesn't care about, is that the very things Mr. Sheehan is 'getting away with' empowers us to be citizens as oppossed to subjuects. Criticing public officials is crucial to keeping the government in its proper place. Hopefully Sen. Finkbeiner will discover through personal experiance that it's also crucial to casting a scallywag out of office.

"But Sheehan published Social Security numbers, which even the lower courts said went too far. However, higher courts found that the information was already available publicly, which is how Sheehan got it in the first place.
'Police in this state have taken too much abuse for doing their job,' said Finkbeiner, who sponsored last year's bill. 'The First Amendment is extraordinarily important, but there are so many people using it to abuse public officials."

So even though free speech is important, if it's used to criticize public officials we should do away with it? That is the kind of politician who should be afraid of people speaking freely.
But the good judge continues:

"Coughenour scolded the state for its move, writing that "there is cause for concern when the Legislature enacts a statute proscribing a type of political speech in a concerted effort to silence particular speakers. ...'
'Defendants boldly assert the broad right to outlaw any speech ... so long as a jury of one's peers concludes that the speaker subjectively intends to intimidate others with that speech. This brash stance strikes at the core of the First Amendment,' the judge wrote.
Critics of the law repeated concerns that the state was trying to punish only those who gave out police officers' information for criticism. Meanwhile, people who gave out the information for the purpose of praising or rewarding officers would be allowed to do so.
Coughenour agreed: 'Thought-policing is not a compelling state interest recognized by the First Amendment."

The sad reality is that the legislature will try to find wording for legislation that might survive another court challenge while accomplishing the same thing. But remember that at least in this instance U.S. District Judge John Coughenour is on our side. Hopefully he'll keep his eye on things in Washington state.

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