Monday, August 10, 2009
Charlottesville VA woman arrested for identifying police officer in blog; info was available in public records, she says
I recall back in middle school a history teacher saying “uh-oh, Susan T. was talking” and we all got detention. I there were some “Uh-Oh’s” in ABC Family’s “Greek”. But today, the comic “Uh-Oh” is back, and it isn’t funny: it’s an editorial on p A12 of The Washington Post on Aug. 10, 2009, “Uh-Oh, They’re Here: A persistent blogger annoys police, and winds up in jail.” The link for the editorial is here and the name of the blog, based probably on the movie “I Heart Huckabees” is “I Hearte Jade”.
The blogger, Elisha Strom, living or working and blogging near Charlottesville, VA, was charged under a Virginia statue prohibiting “identifying a police officer with intent to harass”. The blogger insists that everything she posted is available on public records (the blog is still available this morning). The police officer(s) involved were part of the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force.
I could not find this wording in Virginia code. The closest I could find is “obstruction of justice” which is not the same thing (link). It must be buried in some other law. I can understand that it would be a crime, for example, to identify witnesses under protection, but they wouldn’t be on public records.
I didn't see anything remotely resembling the "wrong" that the Post editorial describes there as on her blog as it is today, and the Post editorial itself did link to it. Generally, journalists can report what they can see and film without "illegal" trespassing (with the established press, there are some circumstances with classified information and certain sensitivities; for "amateur" bloggers, as described in the EFF legal guide, the rules would be pretty much the same; it would be unusual for an "amateur" to get a hold of classified information outside of their own jobs, but in today's world it might sometimes happen.
It would worry me that the state could make something of the asymmetry of her posts: the absence of supervision, the instantaneous world audience, probably instant indexing in search engines and maybe Next Blog. Blogging can amplify, with no oversight, the effect of information technically public but difficult and costly to access in practice. As to constitutional questions about the “asymmetry”, we already visited them in the COPA trial in Philadelphia in 2006, and so far, “free speech rocks”, as Oprah says. I bet this case winds up on Oprah, too; I hope it does. I’ll try to push it.
Here’s still another account.