ExposeDat progress is enlightening

For the second time within three months a court paper has been filed indicating that a judge is dismissing an element of the now-infamous “ExposeDat” case, pending a few formalities that are expected to be handled very soon.

In this instance Sheriff Jerry Larpenter, the last defendant standing, is reported to have reached a compromise with plaintiff Jennifer Anderson. The actual settlement details should be released within a few days. Documents still must be signed and some other housekeeping tended to.

Just about every court settlement contains standard language, including one about the defendant not admitting anything was done wrong. The wording can vary. It will be interesting to see how the lawyers craft this one.

The last time a settlement was reached in this case was between Anderson and Parish President Gordon Dove, for $50,000. That one did not require parish council approval because it was below the threshold for such an action. We suspect this one will be for a bit more.

What we are convinced of is that Sheriff Jerry Larpenter and his legal counsel, William D. Dodd, were wise to take the settlement route with Anderson’s lawyer, Jerri Smitko.

In the case brought against Dove it was difficult to divine where liability might have been found. There is no record of Dove having anything to do with the investigation leading to the claim against Larpenter other than giving a statement at the request of a detective and possibly at the request of Larpenter. Unlike insurance broker Tony Alford, who made a criminal complaint of defamation, Dove was in that scenario little more than a witness, unless Smitko had indications of more that has not – and now never shall – be revealed. The Sheriff, for better or worse, ordered the investigation that led to the seizure of Anderson’s electronic devices, although no arrest was ever made.

With the case all but over we can say emphatically that the Sheriff – as effective and capable a law enforcement executive as he has proven to be over the years – erred in taking on the task of investigating this misdemeanor allegation himself. Propriety should have dictate that he have another agency do that work, since his wife was among the people whose name came up in Jennifer Anderson’s blogs, sparking the complaint from her business associate, Alford.

It is a lesson that is expensive, no matter how low the ultimate settlement amount may be. But it cannot be begrudged Ms. Anderson, who with her attorneys used federal civil rights statutes to legal advantage.

We are not certain, however, that she would have prevailed had the case gone to trial. There is an open question as to whether the trial judge, the Hon. Lance Africk, was correct in his determination that the sheriff is not immune from liability. New caselaw begs the issue to be examined anew, and an appeal being prepared by Dodd – now moot – might have shed further light.

The cost of pursuing the matter, however, is not in our opinion in the best interests of the taxpayers, nor perhaps the Sheriff himself.

It is difficult to applaud anything about this entire set of circumstances other than its pending demise, with a legal draw and the requisite memorialization of that with cash money the only effective way out for anyone involved.

But we do feel comfortable noting that the ordeal bears a lesson with it. Freedom to speak and to write what one sees fit is not limited to those of us who make a living putting words to paper, or more accurately these days, words to screen. Freedom to express without fear is not limited, in other words, to this newspaper nor any other. The words of the blogger are equally protected. While we recognize certainly that such wordsmiths – like ourselves – must act with care and never out of malice, we cannot emphasize enough that speech is speech. This holds true whether one’s work is read by millions or thousands on paper, or by a select few sets of eyes in cyberspace.

It is the spirit of this understanding that was compromised by some actions by officials. It is an understanding that must be held by government and law enforcement officials as well as the public at large. •