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Website Calls Lafayette Police Racist, Appeals Site Shutdown

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 24, 2013 3:59 PM

A website alleging racist policies of the Lafayette Police Department is appealing its shutdown by a federal magistrate in 2012 to the Fifth Circuit, and the Court will hear their case in July.

The webmasters of "realcopsvcraft.com" are appealing federal magistrate Judge Pat Hanna's ruling, claiming that shutting the website down chilled their First Amendment free speech rights, reports Baton Rouge's The Advocate.

The Fifth Circuit is slated to hear the case on July 8, 2013, and what arguments will they be likely to hear?

Internet Flame War … With Cops

The upcoming case in Marceaux et al. v. Lafayette City-Parish Consolidated Government centers on the operation of a website created by current and former members of the Lafayette police force.

Realcopsvcraft.com deals in allegations of police corruption, racial discrimination, and whistleblower retaliation in Lafayette, and contained audio recordings of the Lafayette Police surreptitiously collected by former officers, reports The Advocate.

The question raised by both parties in this suit is whether Judge Hanna was justified in shutting down the site in light of First Amendment free speech rights of the site’s curators.

Prior Restraint?

The Fifth Circuit is likely to consider arguments by the appellants that this website shutdown is effectively a prior restraint. Generally, forbidding speech activities has been considered by the Supreme Court to be “classic examples of prior restraints,” and the Court is likely to view shutting the website down as at least somewhat presumptive against its validity.

The standard in the Fifth Circuit’s case in US v. Brown is somewhat applicable, as courts can limit speech if it would create a “substantial likelihood” of inhibiting the court from conducting a fair trial, and Judge Hanna ordered the shutdown due to ongoing employment litigation between the webmasters and Lafayette Parish.

State Interest in Shutdown

The City’s argument will likely stand in the government and court’s legitimate interests in protecting the court’s ability to carry on a fair trial. The Supreme Court in Estes v. Texas recognized that when free speech and Sixth Amendment fair trial rights conflict, like in broadcasting a criminal trial, fair trial rights must prevail. However, this case is a bit distinguishable from Estes (which is more than four decades old) since the trial at issue is civil and not criminal, and the speech is not a “broadcast” of the court’s proceedings.

Attorneys for the City have argued that the state also has a legitimate interest in upholding rules of professional ethics, which were violated when the appellants engaged in “media antics” by making comments on the website, The Advocate reports.

Bottom Line

Neither the Fifth Circuit nor any court takes seemingly absolute bans on speech or publication lightly, and even if Judge Hanna’s ruling was limited in scope, the Court will not be hasty in balancing state interests against free speech rights in evaluating the website’s shutdown.

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