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Standards unmet in Fla. anonymous blogger case

There are available if evolving ethical and legal standards to help law enforcement officials decide whether to identify anonymous bloggers. Yet accounts suggest that none were applied when Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Detective Robert Hinson unmasked FBC Jax Watchdog to First Baptist Church of Jacksonville (FBC Jax) leadership.

Jacksonville Times-Union reporter Jeff Brumley wrote:

It was also proper for [Detective Robert] Hinson to provide First Baptist’s leadership with [Thomas A.] Rich’s identity despite finding no criminal evidence, [Undersheriff Frank] Mackesy said, so it could take whatever internal action it felt necessary for its own safety.

Mackesy’s allusion to “safety” may be read as an attempt to excuse his department for an error, since nothing Detective Hinson reports finding provides reason to believe the safety of either the church or any of its members was at risk from Rich. A close reading of the FBC Jax Watchdog blog reveals no threats of violence. Nor is there anything other than restrained self-expression in the Watchdog’s words we have seen quoted elsewhere.

Hinson could not have escaped knowing, however, that his minister yearned to identify the author of the anonymously penned FBC Jax Watchdog blog which regularly called him to task. Hinson, who is a member of FBC Jax Pastor Mac Brunson’s security detail, surely knew Brunson would be grateful for that information.

The ties between charismatic pastor and protective parishioner, and the attendant natural desire to please the pastor, created an appearance of conflict of interest which overshadows this matter.

Concerns about that apparent conflict should in our view have led Hinson to recuse himself from any investigation involving his church and pastor.

Legal ethics, most evident in judicial standards, generally require such recusal. For even if an officer behaves with unwavering professional objectivity, the appearance of conflict still tends to undermine public confidence in the department and thus in the law.

Even so, had Detective Hinson not given up Thomas A. Rich as the anonymous author of the FBC Jax Watchdog blog, that appearance of an ethical conflict of interest would not have congealed into an argument for its reality. That appearance is unreduced by the sheriff’s failure address his subordinate’s role, even if unintentional, in the pillorying of Rich by FBC Jax which followed Hinson’s disclosure.

In addition, emerging legal standards regarding blogger anonymity suggest that Rich should have been given notice of Hinson’s intended erasure of his anonymity — notice attended by ample time to respond. Rich’s legal counsel could then have argued in court for the protection of his privacy and First Amendment rights.

Recent cases also suggest that those seeking an anonymous blogger’s identity must demonstrate to a court that their claim will withstand both a motion to dismiss and a motion of summary judgment. That is, they must plead facts necessary to succeed in their claim, and show the sufficiency of those facts.

Thus far there appear to have been no facts sufficient to have persuaded a court of competent jurisdiction to strip Rich of his anonymity. Nor to have seriously considered doing so. There are instead contradictory accounts of the causes for the investigation — with the Rev. John Blount, who filed the complaint, differing from Hinson — and an apparent dearth of facts.

We are left with abiding concern about Hinson’s possible conflict of interest, the lack of appropriate legal regard for Rich’s rights and the chilling effect on free expression which can result from such a public trampling of an individual’s rights.

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April 10, 2009 - Posted by | Churches, Law, Religion, WWW | , , , , , , ,

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