Friday, April 12, 2002
Bill to Outlaw Posting of Judges’ Addresses on Internet Draws Fire
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Open-government advocates yesterday expressed concern over a bill, authored by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and backed by county bar leaders, to bar posting the home addresses and phone numbers of judges, police officers and elected officials on the Internet.
County Bar trustees on Wednesday voted to support Assembly Bill 2238, which was authored by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Brandlin, a former prosecutor and deputy sheriff who said he wanted to protect officials whose families could be targeted by angry suspects, defendants and others.
The proposal is scheduled to be heard in committee in Sacramento Tuesday.
The bill originally focused on World Wide Web listings of public officials’ home addresses and telephone numbers and would have criminalized such postings if they were made with the intent to harass or injure the officials or their families.
But in its most recent form, the bill would permit a wide range of “public safety officials,” including police officers, judges, even city council members, to make a demand on any business or individual person in the state who has their family’s home address and telephone number delete it from their records.
Terry Francke, general counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition, called the proposal “a frontal violation of the First Amendment.”
“It allows someone to come to your newspaper and order you to purge that information from your files, and if you don’t do it it’s a misdemeanor,” Francke said. “And it applies to anyone who has obtained that information for any purpose no matter how lawfully they got it or how innocently they intend to use it.”
Francke added that the Internet provisions were “underinclusive,” because they make a particular conduct—posting data on a website with intent to harass or harm—illegal only if it is targeted at a narrow class of people—public safety and elected officials.
“Why is the protection limited to them when they have such criminal intent?” Francke asked. “They make it seem like those people are uniquely controversial or provocative of enemies, and that is simply not the case. More journalists are murdered in the U.S. for what they do than judges for what they do.”
Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he had not read the latest version of the bill, but he criticized any proposal that would make data that is available in print—in telephone books, for example—unavailable on the web.
“The idea that because of cranks you are going to put in an unenforceable law that removes publicly known information from people’s databanks or Palm Pilots or whatever, that is an atom bomb versus a mosquito situation.”
The bill is being carried by Assemblyman Dick Dickerson, R-Redding, a 30-year law enforcement vetean. Neither Dickerson nor Brandlin could be reached yesterday for comment.
Brian Huben, an attorney at the Los Angeles office of Katten, Muchin & Zavis and chair of the County Bar’s Legislation Committee, said the general consensus of his panel was that the balance of issues weighed in favor of protecting public officials and that any restraint on First Amendment rights was reasonable.
Huben brought the measure to the County Bar trustees Wednesday night and it was added to the agenda as an urgency item because of the coming committee hearing in Sacramento. Huben said Brandlin would be testifying at the hearing.
Danette Meyers, a trustee and a Los Angeles deputy district attorney, said she believed it was more likely that deputies, like herself, would be targeted by defendants, rather than elected district attorneys. But the protections apply only to elected officials, judges and commissioners, police chiefs and sheriffs, and public safety officers.
The trustees’ vote to back the measure was unanimous, except for Superior Court Commissioner Melissa Widdifield, who abstained.
The issue highlights the difficulty in balancing constitutional protections against the safety of public officials. The Superior Court is still reeling from the slaying of Commissioner H. George Taylor and his wife three years ago at their home. The case has not been solved.
Earlier this week, a woman was arrested for making threats against Superior Court Judge William Beverly.
The bill has the backing of more than 20 law enforcement groups, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and other officials who would share in its protections.
No opposition has yet been filed.
“But,” Francke said yesterday, “It looks like we are going to have to file something.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company