Police officers in Washington state are seeking to unmask and prosecute the anonymous creator of a series of videos critical of the department in what officials describe as a cyberstalking investigation.
Through an affidavit for a search warrant signed last month and made public by KIRO-TV in Seattle last week, police in Renton, Wash., seek the identity and registry information from Google that officers believe is linked to the anonymous creator of the videos, who goes by the username “Mrfuddlesticks.”
The videos, which contain profanity and sexual content, reference several officers and staff members of the department, according to the affidavit for search warrant. One video makes reference to an officer having sex with a supervisor to get a promotion, while others appear to criticize the department’s handling of internal investigations.
“Three individuals have came [sic] forward and have identified themselves as being persons targeted by embarrassing and emotionally tormenting comments about past sexual relationships or dating relationships that were discussed within some of these videos,” according to the affidavit.
The state’s cyberstalking law makes it a crime to use electronic communications with the intent to “harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass” another person using “any lewd, lascivious, indecent, or obscene words, images, or language or suggesting the commission of any lewd or lascivious act.”
The warrant is the second the police have sought against the anonymous creator of the videos. According to the most recent affidavit, the first warrant sought information on the location of the computer and email address used to create the YouTube account to which the videos were posted.
Google, which owns YouTube, turned over the information sought by the first warrant, including the email address associated with the YouTube account that posted the videos. The latest warrant sought information on the identity and location of the person who set up the email address used to create the YouTube account.
Although police view the videos as threats, a prominent First Amendment expert has criticized the investigation as an attempt to stifle speech critical of the police department.
Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA law school who specializes in free speech issues, said the state's cyberstalking law is unconstitutional for several reasons, including that the statute broadly defines what constitutes harassment.
“Speech to the public doesn't lose its constitutional protection because it’s intended to torment or embarrass,” he said.
And in the case of videos at issue in the search warrant, the judge who signed off on the warrant should have known that the speech was protected and that, therefore, no crime was committed, Volokh said.
“The government is not permitted to use its coercive power to identify the author of this constitutionally protected video,” he said.