By Sam Lea,
Legal Satyricon Correspondent
Memphis Police Director Billy Godwin has filed a lawsuit aimed at discovering the identification of the persons behind a Blog that is particularly critical of the Director as well as the Memphis PD (source ). The Blog is known as MPD Enforcer 2.0, which has become a popular place for Memphis Police Officers to anonymously vent their frustrations with the Department and its leadership.
Most of the documents associated with the case have been sealed by the court, so it is unclear if the objective of the suit is to simply identify “leaks” in the department, or if it is to simply shut the site down. Memphis Police officials have refused to comment on the pending legal action, but what is clear is that the actions taken by the City of Memphis on behalf of Director Godwin have stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy over the right to anonymous speech.
The person responsible for the blog identifies himself only as “Dirk Diggler” (name of the porn star in Boogie Nights). In an anonymous interview, Mr. Diggler states that he found out about the suit only after receiving an email from AOL which contained a copy of the subpoena requiring them to hand over “all information related to the identity of an email address linked to the site.”
Recent decisions dealing with anonymous speech on the internet appear to be in favor of preserving the right of an individual to remain anonymous, requiring the plaintiff’s claims to be able to survive summary judgment (Cahill v. Doe), with some courts requiring a “prima facie” showing that he or she has a valid legal claim (Krinsky v. Doe).
However, this case is unique in that it involves a public agency and public employees. The courts have routinely recognized that the state possesses great leeway to control employee speech that threatens to undermine its ability to perform legitimate functions. Director Godwin may contend that the Blog undermines the leadership of the MPD, which may have adverse effects on its ability to effectively prevent crime.
However, along with his criticism of department leadership, Mr. Diggler claims to only post blogs based on information already available to the public, so the Pickering Test (clicke here) and its progeny would likely protect the anonymous bloggers if some sort of retribution is sought by the department. After all, corrupt, ineffective police leadership is a matter of public concern. The problem is that these protections will only be available once they are ousted.
Mr. Diggler claims the suit has already had a “chilling effect” on officers contributing to the site. If their names are revealed it would effectively shut the site down and Director Godwin would achieve his objective without even continuing the suit. Can you say SLAPP suit?