A Florida Appellate Court has ruled in favor of Patrick Neptune, a man who was barred under a clearly unconstitutional ruling from criticizing a local police officer on the Internet. Neptune accused Miramar Police Department Officer Philip Lanoue of first cutting him off in traffic and then following him home and giving him a ticket. After Lanoue sought a stalking injunction, a court issued an order including a bar on his criticizing the officer on the Internet.
Here is how the court explained the background:
The Officer is a police officer for a city police department in Florida. Appellant alleges that the Officer “cut him off” in traffic, so Appellant followed the Officer into the neighborhood in which they both lived and scolded him for his driving. According to Appellant, the Officer then stopped Appellant from leaving the area and wrote him a ticket for failing to wear a seatbelt, an allegation Appellant staunchly denies. Appellant claims the Officer later informed Appellant’s parents of the incident.
Appellant subsequently sent several letters to the Officer’s Chief and several other public officials, complaining about his mistreatment by the Officer. Appellant sent at least three letters to the Officer’s home address. Appellant also posted the Officer’s picture on a “copblock” website with a complaint about the incident.
This conduct led the Officer to seek an injunction against stalking directed toward Appellant. A final injunction was issued prohibiting Appellant from coming within 500 feet of the Officer’s residence, from posting anything on the Internet regarding the Officer, and from defacing or destroying the Officer’s personal property.
Neptune is an African-American man over 55 who says that he is a disabled veteran. He appeared pro se in this appeal. He posted a statement on the site Copblock.
What is truly bizarre is that Neptune says that Lanoue’s parents called his parents, who are 92 and 80, to “harass them” about two hours after the first incident. Neptune alleged Lanoue also called his parents, “harassing, yelling and screaming.” Neptune proceeded to file his complaint with the department and others.
The only substantive Internet statement was on a site dedicated to policing police. Such publications are common on the Internet. Indeed, this site has often published the pictures and names of accused officers. To bar any criticism on the Internet raises core constitutional problems that the trial judge should have seen and avoided. Yet, Broward Circuit Judge Richard Eade agreed to Lanoue’s request for the injunction that included barring Neptune exercise of free speech on the Internet. It was failure of Eade that raises serious concerns over his judgment. Under this logic, a wide array of critics of alleged police abuse could be muzzled by injunctions from criticizing public officials.
The appellate court held:
The First Amendment protects Appellant’s right to criticize public officials such as the Officer. “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 462–63 (1987). The injunction issued by the trial court is impermissibly broad and, insofar as it states “the Respondent shall not ‘post’ on the Internet regarding the Petitioner,” in violation of Appellant’s First Amendment right to free speech. The injunction paints with unduly broad strokes on a very large canvas, and goes far beyond enjoining Appellant’s cyberstalking of the Officer. As such, the injunction must be reformulated and narrowly tailored in order to more properly balance the desire to protect the Officer from harassment and stalking with the need to safeguard Appellant’s First Amendment rights.
I am not sure how such an order would be tailored to bar any criticism of the officer for his conduct in the case. Lanoue may be proven to be entirely in the right. However, as a public officer, he is subject to public scrutiny and public criticism. That does not mean that the rest of the injunction is invalid and the appellate court upheld those other restrictions, such as going to the officer’s house. However, the effort to silence Neptune’s writings on the Internet about the incident or the officer is beyond the pale for the First Amendment.