First Amendment protects post on cop-rating website

Mara Zimmerman | Prior Restraints | Feature | May 6, 2010

A Florida federal judge has struck down the law that resulted in the arrest of an individual who published the contact information of a police officer in a website critique.

Robert Brayshaw brought the lawsuit after he was arrested in 2008 for posting a series of comments about a Tallahassee police officer on RateMyCop.com, a website that allows users to rate and comment on police officers. One of Brayshaw's comments included the home address, telephone number, and e-mail address of Tallahassee police officer Annette Garrett -- information that was all publicly available in other places.

Brayshaw was charged with violating a Florida statute that prohibited publishing the home address or telephone number of police officers with "the intent to intimidate, hinder, or interrupt any law enforcement officer in the legal performance of his or her duties." Although the charges were later dismissed, Brayshaw brought a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Judge Richard Smoak ruled that Brayshaw's comment was protected speech and that the law was unconstitutional.

Smoak noted that although the First Amendment does not protect certain categories of speech, such as true threats or speech indicating a violent intent, Brayshaw's speech did not fall into any of these categories.

"Simply publishing an officer's phone number, address, and e-mail address is not in itself a threat or serious expression of an intent to commit an unlawful act of violence," said the judge.

In ruling that the statute as a whole was unconstitutional, Judge Smoak added that "[s]tate action to punish the publication of truthful information seldom can satisfy constitutional standards."