Tyrants’ tool must be repealed

Each year in the last week of May, the memory of men and women who have given their lives in defense of the United States and what it has come to represent throughout the world, a beacon of liberty and justice, is celebrated.

On July 4th we commemorate the founding of the nation, whose fathers forged a constitution whose first major component is the freedom to speak, even to speak out against the government itself.

With freedom comes responsibility, and as the nation’s jurisprudence developed, so too did the laws which forbid false witness that causes harm, which is distinguished from the free speech right. In most cases when defamation is alleged, the civil courts find fact, craft remedies and impose financial sanctions.

But in a small number of states there are also criminal laws which provide punishment for defamatory speech that can include loss of liberty upon conviction. Over many years, appellate courts have modified and refined how these laws may be applied, recognizing the tremendous risk to the very concept of a free nation that exists when speech is criminalized.

A controversy currently exists in Terrebonne Parish in regard to the enforcement of Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute, as a result of an anonymous web blog and related Facebook page that bills itself as a voice against political corruption.

The publishers of the blog, ExposeDat, make no pretense of objectivity or balance, nor are they required to. Those who read its claims are free to accept or reject its conclusions, chief among which are accusations of nepotism and favoritism in the awarding of certain local government contracts, and alleged past misdeeds by officials. In some cases, the information is incomplete or inaccurate. Those who post it are cloaked in anonymity, hidden behind thick walls of IP addresses and computer networks.

A complaint that the site violated Louisiana’s defamation statute was made to the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office by insurance broker Tony Alford last month, because of statements alleging impropriety in his dealings with the Sheriff’s Office and the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government. Sheriff Jerry Larpenter’s wife, Priscilla, works for Alford. Parish President Gordon Dove is a personal friend and has been his partner in a number of business ventures, although not the insurance company.

Alford maintains that the posts contain false information about him and have damaged him emotionally and financially.

To further the investigation of Alford’s claim detectives obtained, through warrants, information that led them to the physical address of computers associated with the site and last week, armed with an additional warrant signed by District Judge Randy Bethancourt, they raided a private residence in Houma, seizing three laptops and four cell phones. Examination of those devices may lead to identities of those responsible for the blogs, but that step is on hold as attorneys for the owners of the devices seek to have the warant invalidated.

Aspects of the case thus far are troubling.

District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr., who is also painted as a malefactor in the blogs, wisely punted the case to the Louisiana Attorney General. Larpenter is about to do the same with the investigation, albeit rather late in the process.

There may be no legal bar to Larpenter’s own detectives seeking a warrant and seizing the computers in this case. The appearance of conflict – Alford’s contract with TPSO, Mrs. Larpenter’s employment by Alford and resulting mention of the Sheriff on the site – is too obvious to be ignored. The State Police, another parish sheriff or any agency other than Larpenter’s own should have been asked to handle the matter. Still unanswered is the question of why detectives went to Judge Bethancourt, who was not the duty judge on the week the warrant was sought.

The very existence of the statute which allows an attempt at prosecution in this case is problematic. A law that imposes jail time for mere defamatory speech is a tool appropriate to nations run by tyrants, not by people who call themselves free.

Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute is already crippled by rulings that severely limit its application in accordance with the Constitution. We challenge all members of this region’s legislative delegation to take the steps necessary during next year’s legislative session to deal it the coup de grace that freedom requires, by having it repealed. •