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Sheriff's Office Sues To ID Deputies Behind Web Posts
By THOMAS W. KRAUSE [email protected]
Published: Aug 3, 2005

TAMPA - Top brass at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, growing weary of Web site postings they say include racist and sexist comments, have filed a lawsuit to identify the authors.
Critics of the suit say the top brass are more worried about negative comments made about them.

Copies of several postings were included in the lawsuit filed Friday. The suit, filed against one or more John Does it says are Hillsborough deputies, asks for an injunction to stop anonymous deputies from posting messages on

Some of the postings copied in the lawsuit include vulgar references about women using sex to gain promotions. Other comments are pointed more toward the top ranks.

``The sheriff doesn't know what's going on,'' according to one anonymous comment in the lawsuit. That post also calls the sheriff a liar.

``When the top no longer tolerates staff members having mistresses in the ranks, perhaps some things will change,'' another posting says.

Chief Deputy Jose Docobo said those comments and similar comments on the site were posted by liars. Still, he said, they are milder than others. Docobo said postings have included deputies bragging about using Tasers to force confessions from black suspects.

``They deleted those before we could get copies of them,'' Docobo said.

Through the lawsuit, the sheriff's office is making moves to identify the anonymous deputies. Should they be identified, Docobo said, they will be disciplined, up to and including termination.

Sheriff David Gee said he needs to know if he has any ``loose cannons'' on his force.

``It is totally unprofessional for law enforcement officers to make those kinds of postings,'' Gee said. ``It makes me wonder if they should have badges, and I want to find out who they are.''

A Thin Line

The battle between the anonymous deputies and the sheriff's office represents a growing trend on the Internet of employers seeking to discipline employees for their anonymous online postings. When that battle moves from the boardrooms to law enforcement agencies, however, new issues crop up, including the privacy enjoyed by law enforcement officers and the heavier criticism allowed when speaking about public officials.

Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said the sheriff's office seems to be trying to shut down public opinion.

``It sounds like the [sheriff's office] is trying to send a pretty important message to its internal staff that if they are doing this, they better stop,'' Rotenberg said.

Still, Rotenberg said, anyone who thinks he is a victim of defamation has rights.

``There is a fine line between whistleblower and online defamation,'' he said.

When an employer wants to stop disgruntled employees from posting online criticisms, it can go to the Internet service provider with a subpoena for the names of the anonymous chat room aficionados, Rotenberg said. Case law, however, has come down to say that employers should not use subpoenas in a fishing expedition to catch wayward employees, he said.

The sheriff's office lawsuit states it will subpoena www.leoaffairs.comofficials. It asks for the names of the providers used by those who are posting.

Jim Preston, a retired Tampa police officer who helped start the Web site, said he will not turn over those providers.

``If someone posts anonymously,'' he said, ``it's because they want to protect their identity.''

Preston said his attorneys have assured him that case law protects the rights of those who use Internet message boards.

Preston says racist language has cropped up, but moderators on the site erase those comments as quickly as possible.

Regarding the comment about a Taser being used to extract a confession, Preston said there is no evidence it is true.

``We have no idea if they are a deputy or a citizen or an anarchist,'' he said. ``We have no idea who would get on there and post something as ridiculous as that.''

Special Protection Rights

Fred Zinober, a Tampa lawyer with 21 years of civil law experience, said that with a subpoena, it is not too difficult to get the names of those posting on the Internet. This case, however, may prove more difficult.

Law enforcement officers, Zinober said, have special rights to privacy because of the dangerous nature of their jobs.

The sheriff's office says it wants the injunction because the remarks are posted in bad faith and are defamatory. The lawsuit also states that the ability of the sheriff's office to perform its duties is ``seriously and dangerously threatened'' because of the comments.

Zinober said both of these arguments may be tough to prove.

First, he said, elected officials such as the sheriff have a higher standard of defamation than most average citizens. Likewise, he said, the argument that law enforcement is suffering seems like a stretch.

Gee and Docobo said members of the media and the public routinely come to them asking about information they read at information almost always is incorrect, they said.

The Web site has links to about 40 Florida agencies and a few agencies in other states. It identifies its mission as being a ``sounding board'' between law officers and their agencies.
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