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Law banning posting of police officer data unconstitutional

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Law banning posting of police officer data unconstitutional

  • A Web publisher will be allowed to publish information about police officers on his site.

June 2, 2003 — A database of personal information about Washington police officers returned to the Web last week after a federal judge in Seattle ruled May 22 that a law prohibiting public disclosure of the material was unconstitutional.

Bill Sheehan, the operator of Justicefiles.org, challenged the law in court, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenor agreed.

“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,” he wrote in the decision.

Plans for fighting the decision are uncertain at this point, said Jim Pharris, senior assistant attorney general. The attorney general’s office is consulting with the King County Prosecutor, also named as one of the defendants in the case, to decide whether or not to appeal the ruling. Additionally, they are talking with state legislators to see if new legislation could be introduced.

The law, which took effect last year, prohibited publication of home addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information about law enforcement officers, corrections officers, and court employees.

Sheehan launched the Justicefiles site on March 17, 2001. For 18 months prior to the site’s debut, he gathered and compiled information for the site. Sheehan obtained the data through legal means, using public records such as voter registration files and property tax records, he said.

As stated on the Web site, Sheehan “believes that only with a continuing and accurate data base of police officers, prosecutors and those that are part of the criminal justice system, can true accountability in government be achieved.”

According to the site, JusticeFiles “is merely an attempt to ‘level the playing field’ for the average citizen” who is “confronted unfairly by the massive power of the criminal justice system.”

Even before the legislation took effect, Sheehan had removed the police information from his site. In the aftermath of the court’s decision, he is in the process of restoring the data. Eventually, Sheehan plans to expand his database to include information on every police officer in the state.

The decision protects information published on Web sites by both individuals and newspapers, said Elena Garella, Sheehan’s attorney. Journalists should be particularly interested in the ruling because of their strong reliance on public information to develop stories, she added.

“If all of a sudden you start chipping away at that, it would be extremely dangerous,” Garella said.

(Sheehan v. Gregoire; Media counsel: Elena Garella, Seattle) EH

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