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Sheriff gets win against Web site

A judge rules that he can subpoena LeoAffairs.com to identify anonymous posters who might work for his office.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published August 25, 2005


TAMPA - A judge has handed Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee a victory in his quest to quell what he says are inflammatory postings to an Internet message board used by law enforcement.

Gee now has the authority to serve subpoenas to the Web site, LeoAffairs.com, take depositions and try to identify anonymous posters who might work for the Sheriff's Office.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Marva Crenshaw ruled recently that Gee has "a clear legal right" to discipline any employees who have violated department rules and regulations, and she ordered the site's operators to remove certain offensive posts.

In July, the Sheriff's Office sued LeoAffairs.com, which gives officers a forum to comment anonymously using screen names. The lawsuit sought to prevent the site from posting comments that violate the agency's code of conduct. Gee also wanted to identify deputies who left what he claims are false, crude and revealing messages about the agency. Some of the postings on the site, for example, contain racist language and insults to homosexuals.

In her two recent orders, Crenshaw didn't rule entirely for the sheriff. She rejected any notion of allowing the department to prevent in advance a posting to the site, saying "such an injunction would be a prior restraint which is prohibited by the Constitution."

The sheriff's office contends the publicly accessible site harms morale, undermines public trust and weakens internal discipline. The site's founders - current and retired Tampa police officers - say the First Amendment protects its users.

Retired Tampa Sgt. Jim Preston and Officer Chip DeBlock launched LeoAffairs in 2002. The site at first contained only a Q&A on the internal affairs process, information about whistle-blower laws and a link to the Policeman's Bill of Rights.

A single message board, set up in February 2003 for Tampa officers facing pension and contract negotiations, spawned message boards for other agencies.

Today the site has 50 boards for law enforcement agencies from California to Florida, including boards for officers of the Pinellas and Pasco sheriff's offices, and the St. Petersburg, Tampa and Pinellas Park police departments.

Contributors discuss everything from department policies and promotions to shift changes and upcoming charity events.

But they also have discussed extramarital affairs, disparaged certain department employees, posted comments containing racist language and, according to sheriff's officials, published details about undercover operations.

Sheriff's Office policy prohibits deputies from publicly criticizing the office; using profanity or vulgarity in public; and divulging information or making public statements without permission.

LeoAffairs' "Terms of Use" policy notifies users that by contributing to the message boards "you agree that you will not submit messages to forums that are unlawful, threatening, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane or indecent."

Preston has said that if he and DeBlock were to turn over the names or computer Internet Protocol addresses of users, it would have a "chilling effect" on the message board. DeBlock has declined to comment on the case. Preston did not return a phone message left by the Times Wednesday afternoon.

Gee declined comment on the judge's decisions, saying he does not want to discuss the legal case before it is resolved.

Tampa attorney Luke Lirot, well known for defending First Amendment cases, is representing LeoAffairs.com. He was out of town Wednesday. Jennifer D'Angelo, an attorney in his office, had not yet seen the signed subpoena order when contacted by the Times.

But she said she and Lirot will file motions to stop the Sheriff's Office from issuing a subpoena to any of the site's users.

The judge's order gives 10 days for any subpoenaed parties to file objections.

Times staff writers Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler and Jonathan Milton contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 25, 2005, 09:03:41]


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