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Washington city sues to halt Web site that gives police details

By The Associated Press

04.04.01

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KIRKLAND, Wash. — The city of Kirkland has sued the creators of a Web site that lists the home addresses, phone numbers, salaries and some of the Social Security numbers of police officers in the Seattle suburb.

Named as the primary defendant in the lawsuit filed last week in King County Superior Court is Bill Sheehan of Bothell, who provides the computer server space for the Web site.

The site lists personal information on police officers in Kirkland and 14 other jurisdictions. Its authors say they are trying to hold police officers accountable and plan to add information on police officers' criminal records and bankruptcy reports.

The state attorney general's office has confirmed that information now posted to the Web site was obtained legally.

Kirkland wants the Web site shut down because of safety concerns, said City Manager David Ramose. Giving out home addresses and Social Security numbers is like "shouting fire in a crowded theater," he said.

"It's an abuse of free speech. There is no public purpose served here."

The Web site could be a resource for people seeking retribution against police, Ramose said.

The lawsuit also contends the site damages the city's contractual agreements with its employees. It makes it harder for the city to attract and retain employees, Ramose said.

Sheehan's attorney, Elena Garella, says the lawsuit is "laughable, 100 percent without legal merit."

She cited a 1998 decision by a federal judge that allowed Sheehan to continue posting home phone numbers, Social Security numbers and even maps with directions to the homes of employees at a local credit agency.

"The First Amendment is renowned for protecting the speech we deplore as thoroughly as the speech we admire," wrote U.S. District Judge William Dwyer in that case.

Sheehan's targets in that case were the employees of a private company.

"Here, we're talking about police officers, public officials who have far less protection under the First Amendment," Garella said.

There are exceptions under the law, Dwyer noted, for speech that is "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to induce or produce such action."

Legal advisers for law enforcement agencies hope to use the exception to draft so-called "accountability legislation" for Washington state.

"What is it that goes too far?" asked Leo Poort, legal adviser for the Seattle Police Department. "People have the right to say what they want to say. But what if there's damage, or if there are errors? What responsibility do the authors have then? It's a hard line to draw."

"I respect the First Amendment, and I respect the court rulings upholding it," said Kyle Aiken, legal adviser for the King County Sheriff's Office. "But I also represent the interests of the sheriff and his employees, and I want to protect their safety."

Related

Feds seize Web site selling video-game piracy technology
Electronic privacy advocate says seizure, government-approved content on site raise free-speech concerns.  02.27.03

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