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Federal judge's ruling allows personal police data to return to Web

By The Associated Press
06.04.03

Editor's note: The Associated Press has reported that Washington state's attorney general has decided not to appeal U.S. District Judge John Coughenour's May 22 ruling and will not defend the state law designed to shut down William Sheehan's Web site. Fred Olson, Attorney General Christine Gregoire's spokesman, said on June 23 that while state attorneys still had "grave reservations" about possible harm to police officers' privacy, they decided they probably would lose on appeal.

SEATTLE — A federal judge has struck down a state law designed to protect police personal information, effectively reviving a private Web site that posts names, addresses and home phone numbers of police in western Washington.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour ruled on May 22 that the law was too vague, too broad and violated the First and 14th Amendment guarantees of free speech and due process.

Plaintiff William Sheehan has since resumed posting not only the names and home addresses of police in the area but the Social Security numbers of some police on his justicefiles.org Web site.

Sheehan contends posting such information is the best way to hold police accountable for their actions.

A spokesman for Attorney General Christine Gregoire, who defended the law passed by the 2002 state Legislature, said after the ruling that Gregoire might appeal.

"We'll be reviewing the judge's decision and conferring with King County, which is one of the other defendants in the case, and we'll be making a decision on whether to file an appeal," Gary Larson said.

The statute barred the distribution or release of such sensitive information about law enforcement officers "with the intent to harm or intimidate" without written consent of the employees, and established penalties.

"The statute punishes the communication of truthful, lawfully obtained, publicly available information," Coughenour ruled.

The judge said he did not intend to minimize the "real fear of harm and intimidation that law enforcement-related, corrections officer-related and court-related employees, and their families, may experience" as common targets of threats and harassment.

However, he wrote, "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."

The site debuted in 2001.

The state Court of Appeals ruled last year that the King County sheriff's office must give out the first and last names of its deputies to anyone who requests them.

The appeals court wrote that names of police officers are of legitimate public interest because "police officers are public employees, paid with public tax dollars."

In a May 23 statement, Sheehan said that the actions of Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, who fatally wounded his estranged wife and then killed himself earlier this year, "underscore the need for the public to closely monitor the activities of police."


Previous
Court: Online posting of cops' phone numbers, addresses is protected speech
But Web site operators must remove officers’ Social Security numbers, judge finds in suit brought by Seattle suburb. 05.11.01

Related

State high court orders release of reserve deputies' names

Massachusetts justices side with Cape Cod Times, saying information is matter of public record even though sheriff's reserves aren't public officials. 03.09.05

Ohio state employees' home addresses not public records
But state supreme court warns agencies not to overinterpret its ruling, deny other records requests. 09.08.05

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