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Court Strikes Louisiana's 'Don't-Threaten-to-Sue' Law

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 16, 2018 7:00 AM

You couldn't threaten to sue a police officer in Louisiana, and that was a problem.

In Seals v. McBee, the problem was the state's law against intimidating threats. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said it was unconstitutional because it banned too many types of threats.

The appeals panel said the statute could criminalize boycotts, lawsuits, and other legally protected speech. You can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, either, but that's another story.

Intimidation Statute

Louisiana Revised Statute 14:122 makes it a felony to use "violence, force or threats upon (a person) with the intent to influence his conduct in relation to his position, employment or duty." It applies to public employees, jurors, trial witnesses, election officials and school bus drivers.

Travis Seals challenged the statute after sheriff's deputies handcuffed and pepper-prayed him during an arrest. He threatened to sue the officers and get them fired.

They responded by booking him for public intimidation and aggravated assault. He was not charged, but he followed through his lawsuit.

A trial judge said the intimidation statute was overbroad, and the government appealed. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said the law only targets people who have "corrupt intent."

Constitutionally Overbroad

The Fifth Circuit disagreed. The appeals panel said "threat" in the statute is so broad it could include lawful, peaceful actions, such as threats to sue a police officer or to challenge an incumbent officeholder.

"To be sure, it covers a large swath of unprotected speech, including true threats and core criminal speech, such as extortion and threats to engage in truly defamatory speech made with actual malice," Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote for the court. "But the statute plainly reaches further."

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