Judge right to shut critical website in Lafayette, attorney says

A federal magistrate judge did not trample on free speech rights when he ordered the shutdown last year of a website critical of the Lafayette Police Department, its chief and others, a Police Department attorney says in a court filing.

The brief, filed Tuesday, provides one side of the arguments in the case that will be heard by a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans on July 9.

At issue is whether U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Pat Hanna’s order in 2012 to shutter realcopsvcraft.com violated the First Amendment free speech rights of the current and former officers who were operating the site.

The officers claim in a federal lawsuit that the Police Department is “fundamentally rotten to the core” because of racial prejudice and department-led punitive actions against some of them.

Police Chief Jim Craft and other city-parish officials have disputed those claims. Craft described the officers running the website as being digruntled.

The lawsuit filed by the officers is on hold pending the 5th Circuit decision on the website.

Michael Corry, a Lafayette attorney representing Craft and the agencies named in the suit, asked Hanna last year to order the website shut down.

In court filings, officials have said that confidential police documents had been secreted out of the department and published on the website, along with recorded conversations among officers on duty who did not know they were being secretly recorded.

In the 27-page filing, Corry cited several reasons appellate judges should uphold Hanna’s order to shut down the website, including that the order was not an example of “prior restraint” — which is the prevention of free speech in the future by government or some other authority.

Corry said Hanna ordered the website closed because the people who ran it — the plaintiffs and their attorneys, Stephen Spring and J. Christopher Alexander Sr. — violated professional ethics rules.

Corry said the rules were breached because the website intentionally tried to embarrass people not involved in the lawsuit. Another line was crossed when the plaintiffs and their attorneys made “extra judicial” comments outside the courtroom and engaged in “media antics” that hurt the judicial process, Corry wrote.

“Because the District Court did not otherwise forbid plaintiffs from posting any (future) website … but rather punished plaintiffs’ past conduct by removing the website, the District Court did not impose a prior restraint on plaintiffs’ free speech,” Corry wrote.

“The Supreme Court has definitively sanctioned the ‘time-honored distinction between barring speech in the future and penalizing past speech’ …,” Corry wrote.

Spring on Monday said he and Alexander, both attorneys from Baton Rouge, would file a brief next week addressing the allegations that they committed ethical breaches.

Spring declined further comment.

Alexander said in an email that no ethical lines were crossed, and said the officers had reasons for creating the website.

“The website was simply the officers’ effort to counteract the notion that they are dishonorable, petulant rogues, which is how these very powerful defendants have tried to portray them,” Alexander said.

Hanna in court papers last year cited his concern that it could be difficult to seat an impartial jury if realcopsvcraft.com were widely read and heard.

The population that would form a jury if the lawsuit goes to trial could be prejudiced by the website’s content, Hanna said.

Corry, in his brief, asks appellate judges to also consider his clients’ Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, which he said could be compromised by “plaintiffs’ extrajudicial conduct, including operation of the ‘patently offensive’ website.”