Friday, September 18, 2009

Austin Chief Acevedo takes on the city's real public safety threat: Anonymous internet commenters

Apparently all the crime in Texas' capital has been solved, so now, with so much free time on his hands, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo can pursue the really important public safety issues like going after people who criticize him or the department in anonymous blog comments.

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):

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 Officers and civilian workers who were responsible for the comments could face disciplinary action.

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?

Priorities, people!

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.


Anonymous said...

Hes already damaged...

Anonymous said...

Good post. Example of truth vs libel...when some high level TYC people threatened to sue the author of "Raped by The State", they backed off when it became clear through many others that the book was true. Keep up the good work.

Futon said...

Don't we deserve a better police chief?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Futon, you need to be investigated!! ;)

Anonymous said...

This coming from the Chief who is deciding not to enforce the law against illegal aliens because he feels sympathetic to their "economic migration". Art, police don't get to interpret the law and decide that "economic migrants" don't deserve punishment. Your job is to just enforce the laws that make these "economic migrants" illegal.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:09. Are you sure that the cops of a municipality are tasked to enforce Federal immigration laws? If they are, I sure would like to know what statute requires it. If they are not, then why should the Austin PD be criticized for not doing what they are not requred to do?

Anonymous said...

Scott, I agree with your sentiments here. However, I've seen you do your share of whining about anonymous commenters, and probably for the same reason Acevedo does; you think you know who we are ;)

Anonymous said...

What free speach rights? Since Bush was in office news columnists have been imprisoned! With the push to put a camera on every street corner is it not already "Big Brother"? ....Sandra
p.s. I can't sign in under my name, it doesn't work. I hope my lack of anonymouty and criticism of the move away from our constitutional rights doesn't land me in jail.

whitsfoe said...

Wasn't there a court ruling last year stating that one can sue to identify anonymous posters? I thought it was that Bexar County Chief that was doing it. What ever happened with that?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Bexar and the AG backed off their motion to reveal anonymous commenters. They too were looking for employee commenters but took too much heat in the press and the AG backed down. Some of the commenters they were concerned about were on Grits so I kinda had a dog in that fight!

Anonymous said...

SO now from the folks that brought you "Internet Travelers" we have "Internet Cops". What ever happneded to the geat American tradition of annonymous names began by "A Simple Farmer" and "Helvacius" by such luminaris of the American Revelution as Adams and Jefferson.

Give me a break.

Anonymous said...

Well on the job, The Chief can have his IT staff put filters in place to find posters that are doing it while in the office, however outside of the office people are safe from prosecution as long as they keep it truthful. No matter how damning it might be for the good Cheif.

Ken Martin said...

Well said, Scott, and an excellent post concerning this interesting topic.

Coming late to the discussion, I find it sort of interesting that all the posters save yourself in this thread are anonymous or using a screen name that in effect makes them anonymous, too.

Art Acevedo said...

"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."

Hi. My name is Chief Art Acevedo, and I like the following:
* taking blood samples for the DNA database
* cameras to watch and monitor the people in public
* not being questioned

Things I don't like:
* having anyone post anything negative about me
* being questioned

Thank you. That is all.