Acevedeo is particularly upset at commenters at the Statesman who've claimed to be police officers and vociferously criticized the department. But as Williamson County DA John Bradley noted on the Texas prosecutor user forum, "It is an interesting question as to whether your own employees are damaging office morale by anonymously posting lies about your own personnel." According to the Statesman ("Police ready to 'take on' commenters, chief says," Sept. 18):
Yup, all extant murders have suspects in hand; the cold cases have all been solved. Focused prevention efforts will eliminate all future crime. So there are plenty of extra investigators to assign some to identifying anonymous commenters and looking for ways to prosecute, sue, or perhaps discipline them if they're employees. Excellent use of the department's time and resources, don't you think?
The effort to crack down on potentially illegal statements or comments that are possibly libelous — those published with the goal of defaming a person — is the second time in recent months that the department has confronted new social media.
In March, the social networking site Twitter shut down a fake account that pretended to issue official Austin police bulletins after the department and the Texas attorney general's office complained.
University of Texas law professor David Anderson said the hosts of sites where potentially libelous comments are posted are granted immunity by federal laws. Those who post comments can still be sued, however.
State lawmakers this year passed a law that took effect Sept. 1 making it a third-degree felony to use another person's name to post messages on a social networking site without their permission and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten. ...
Acevedo said that in several cases, he thinks department employees were responsible for comments that appeared on sites such as Statesman.com. Officers and civilian workers who were responsible for the comments could face disciplinary action.
Let's face it, nobody likes the First Amendment much when it protects critical commentary that harms their interests, but it still protects anonymous expressions of opinion, satire, and anonymous speech generally.
And remember, Chief, truth is the ultimate defense to libel. So before you start filing charges against one employee for making an anonymous comment about another employee, you will have to dig a lot deeper into everyone's private lives than you--or certainly they--might really want. Is that how you want to build morale at the department?
Look: From my experience with Youth Commission employee comments, I fully understand that it can create problems when anonymous employees dump dirt - often half true, half maliciously fabricated - and it's read by opinion leaders and decision makers. That's why I began to aggressively moderate TYC strings for germaneness and civility, ultimately shutting them down for a time when employees wouldn't stop on their own. But I'm not the police chief. My enforcement of my own blog's comment policy doesn't come with a threat of prosecution, lawsuit or discipline at the commenters' jobs.
What's more, as I told TYC management folks who sometimes expressed (extreme) concern at the tenor and content of Grits comment strings about their agency, if you've got a significant number of employees talking trash about you to the point that you're having high-level management discussions about the topic, you've clearly got problems with morale and professionalism that are bigger, more fundamental concerns than the vicissitudes of public opinion expressed in anonymous blog comments. Focus on that.
The chief probably hopes that threatening everyone will make it stop, but I suspect he'll be surprised how much the Internet has helped educate average people about their free speech rights. This tactic won't solve the purported problem, and he may find before everything is said and done that it will create quite a few unanticipated new ones for the department.