Lafayette officers meeting with attorneys over shuttered site
LAFAYETTE — The Lafayette police officers whose website was banned by a judge last year, then reinstated by a higher court Monday, will meet Friday with their attorneys to discuss getting the website back online.
“I’m sure they’ll want to continue to put their message out,” said Chris Alexander, the attorney for a group of officers who have sued the Lafayette Police Department, its chief and other officials alleging the department is rife with racism and corruption.
The group of officers have used the website realcopsvcraft.com to post audio conversations involving police officers on the job who didn’t know they were being recorded.
Alexander said the officers have unused audios of previously conversations that took place over the past five years.
The site was a venue on which the disgruntled officers, some of whom are still on the job, posted content that the department and its police chief, Jim Craft, disagreed with.
The audio posts were interdepartment conversations that included comments from officers who were unaware they were being recorded.
Craft declined to comment on the website Wednesday and the lawsuit.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge Pat Hanna ordered the website shut down in September 2012.
Hanna, in court filings, reasoned if the website’s content were seen and heard by enough people, it might be hard to seat an impartial, unbiased jury if the suit against the department and its chief goes to trial. Hanna’s decision was later backed by U.S. District Judge Richard Haik.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals released a unanimous ruling Monday that said Hanna’s wholesale shutdown of the website threw an unconstitutional blanket over the officers’ First Amendment right to free speech.
The 5th Circuit said Hanna should have used “a nuanced approach to the delicate balance between the necessity of avoiding a tainted jury pool and the rights of the (officers) to freely air their views and opinions in the ‘market square’ now taking the form of the electronic square known as the Internet,”
The appellate judges said Hanna’s determination that the website content could taint the jury pool “was overbroad and clearly erroneous.”
However, the 5th Circuit also ruled some judicial oversight could remain.
“Although we (are stopping) wholesale banning of the website, we do not intend to tie the hands of the district court in addressing some of its content …,” the ruling said.
Media law experts said they expected the ruling that the 5th Circuit published Monday.
“It’s no surprise that a ban on an entire website was found to be problematic,” said Erin Coyle, a professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communications.
Lori Mince is a New Orleans attorney who represents media, including The Advocate.
She said the website is operated by plaintiffs who use the site to post material related to the lawsuit they filed, which means they do not legally have the free-speech range others have concerning the specific lawsuit.
“They have diminished First Amendment rights because they are litigants,” Mince said. “But that doesn’t mean they have no First Amendment rights.”
The website was launched after several Lafayette police officers in 2012 sued city-parish government, Lafayette’s police department and top government officials including Craft and Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley.
They also started filling the realcopsvcraft.com website with inter-office conversations they recorded in secret.
Police officials and the city-parish attorney, Michael Corry, complained loudly about the tactics. They also complained about the officers’ attorneys, Alexander and Stephen Spring.
Hanna noted in one court filing the website was started and maintained by Spring and Alexander until ownership was transferred to Regina Brisco over the course of a weekend.
Brisco was a plaintiff who no longer is part of the lawsuit.
Arguing before the 5th Circuit in July, Alexander told the judges that Kane Marceaux, a longtime officer, recorded the conversations to protect himself.
Alexander said Marceaux was retaliated against by police officials on a daily basis.
Corry told the judges at the same hearing that life for Lafayette municipal and police officials was untenable in the summer and fall 2012.
He said the acrimony caused by the website hindered operations, and the atmosphere settled after Hanna shut the site down.
Corry’s wording brought a swift rebuke from Judge Catharina Haynes, who responded, “That’s what the First Amendment is all about. … People say that about their public officials all the time. It’s not pretty.”
It seems unlikely that opposing parties will start getting along anything soon.
Corry filed papers in federal court Friday asking Hanna to reinstate a stand-down order instituted for one week in September 2012, which forbade the opposing sides from talking to each other.
Corry’s motion alleged one of the officers in the lawsuit, Uletom Hewitt, confronted Corry after a civil service hearing last month in state district court, proceedings that were unrelated to the federal lawsuit.
Hewitt walked up to Corry and threatened him, using an expletive and placing his finger on Corry’s chest, the court document said.
“Although Hewitt was thereafter restrained, he attempted to come after Corry a second time and had to be restrained further,” the document said.