Cops and Webmasters

 
 
By eweek  |  Posted 2001-06-04 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Site posts personal info about police officers - is it free speech?

Imagine youre a cop. You deal with street scum every day in a risky profession. Then you find out someone just posted your name, occupation and home address on a well-publicized Web site.

For police officers in Kirkland, Wash., a Seattle suburb, it really happened.

Two local men, William Sheehan, 39, of Mill Creek, Wash., and Aaron Rosenstein, 27, of Seattle, published a Web site last year that listed by name thousands of police, corrections officers and court officials in 16 municipalities around metropolitan Seattle. Sheehan and Rosenstein — both convicted felons — say the disclosures are a public service intended to "level the field" in matters of justice.

Kirkland officials say its an invasion of privacy. The city sued to shut down the site, www.justicefiles.org, after it published the home telephone numbers and Social Security numbers of about 70 Kirkland police officers. The lawsuit claimed the Web site put peace officers and their families at risk from violent criminals and identity thieves.

The legal fight over the site is being closely watched by Internet privacy advocates and First Amendment experts, who are conflicted over how much protection public servants should have under the law. On May 10, a King County superior court judge gave the site a legal victory by ruling that its content is constitutionally protected political speech, denying Kirklands request for an injunction.

In his decision, Judge Robert H. Alsdorf wrote that the site could facilitate First Amendment speech directed at police, such as political protests. But he drew the line at posting their Social Security numbers, ordering them to be removed immediately.

Mark S. Zaid, a Washington, D.C., attorney well-versed in suing the government over public disclosure, says constitutional law holds little protection for the personal privacy of police officers.

"[Police officers] are public officials," Zaid says. "They have the right to compile information on us, and we should be able to compile information on them."

But for privacy advocates — who normally fight to increase privacy protections for individual citizens and favor less government secrecy — the case is vexing. Publishing such personal information might be going too far, says Andrew Shen, an analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.

"Even if you grant that public officials should have no privacy . . . youre also affecting the privacy interests of people who live in the same household, who are not public officials," Shen says.

Jim Pasco, executive director at the National Fraternal Order of Police, hammers the courts ruling as a "perversion of the First Amendment." Worse, he says, it might encourage others to mimic the site elsewhere, exposing more cops to danger.

So why was Kirkland singled out? Sheehan, a convicted marijuana grower, felt he was wrongly found guilty in a city court of making a false statement to police in an unrelated 1998 incident. His so-called "pissing match" with Kirkland officials escalated after he launched the site to retaliate.

Police investigated who was behind the online disclosures, and eventually contacted Sheehans employer, General Dynamics, about the site, according to Bill Evans, Kirklands assistant city attorney. The call got Sheehan fired from his job as a network engineer, Sheehan says, though he denies using company computers to produce his site. When Kirkland subsequently filed suit last fall, Sheehan posted maps to the residences of four cops who volunteered to put their names on the claim.

"Is there a little bit of vendetta there? Yes, probably, and its not illegal either," Sheehan says. He admits hell feel remorse if a violent offender uses his site to locate and harm a police officers family, but Kirkland officials "have gone out of their way to make my life a living hell," he says.

Sheehan and Rosenstein allege that unknown individuals sympathetic to the police recently put up a Web site with their mug shots, homes and criminal records, along with a photo of their defense attorney, Elena Garella, getting out of her car.

Kirklands legal team says Sheehan might have put up the site himself. Evans, whose name is listed on Sheehans site, says that Sheehans Internet disclosures are not just a nuisance, but a danger to Kirkland police officers and to anyone else he chooses to expose online.

Garella rejects the citys allegation that the site is an invasion of privacy. "[Sheehan] didnt look through their bathroom windows to get their Social Security numbers," she says. "He got it from government and commercial sources."

Zaid predicts that it is unlikely the city can argue that the unemployed defendants intended to cause anyone specific harm. Alsdorf said as much in his previous ruling denying the citys injunction, pointing to ongoing litigation over the "Nuremberg Files" site, which published similar identifying information about abortion clinic doctors. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America sued that site in federal court and won, but an appellate court reversed the decision, saying the site did not directly threaten the doctors safety.

In a message posted online, Sheehan offered to pull the plug on his site if Kirkland creates a civilian police review board. The judge called that blackmail. Sheehan denies that charge, and says he briefly considered shutting down his site.

But whether the site stays online or not, it has already been mirrored on overseas Web servers, which are untouchable by U.S. prosecutors. That renders Kirklands injunction effort futile, Zaid says — and it keeps the door open for more discomforting disclosures.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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