Thursday, May 14, 2009

Getting jailed for speech

Few people expect to get arrested when they send an e-mail to a newspaper, but that’s what allegedly happened to Bobby Felix Simmons when he sent a message to the Ville Platte Gazette suggesting misconduct by Mamou Police Chief Greg Dupuis.

Simmons apparently sent an e-mail to the Gazette asking why it had not published a story about Dupuis allegedly having received a DWI.

Dupuis denies getting a DWI, and we’ve seen no evidence that he did. But what happened next seems like overkill, to say the least.

According to a lawsuit filed against Dupuis and the town of Mamou by the American Civil Liberties Union, Mamou police arrested Simmons and charged him with criminal defamation, a rarely used state law that is loosely defined as “a malicious publication or expression that tends to expose a person, living or dead, to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to deprive a person of the benefit of public confidence or social intercourse.” The crime is punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and/or six months imprisonment.

We agree with ACLU attorney Katie Schwartzman’s prediction that the defamation charge against Simmons won’t stick. Court rulings typically support the view that people should be able to say what they want about public officials, even things that are outrageous. The principle here is that democracy is best served by allowing the freest possible discourse about public affairs.

Simmons’ suit seeks unspecified monetary damages, plus legal fees. Simmons claims he was denied necessary medical treatment while he was being held.

Whatever the courts decide in this case, we believe Simmons’ arrest underscores the need to revise Louisiana’s little-used criminal defamation law, which is vague and invites abuse.

The Ville Platte Gazette quoted Dupuis as saying he was personally offering a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone else caught “spreading rumors” about him.

That’s the kind of behavior we’d expect from police officials in China and other authoritarian countries, but not the United States of America. We hope the courts agree.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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