People who misrepresent themselves as officials in online comments could face civil, criminal penalties, Acevedo says.
By Tony Plohetski
Friday, September 18, 2009
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo says he and some of his officers have been harassed, lied about and had their identities falsely used in online blogs and in reader comment sections on local media Internet sites.
They've had enough.
In a meeting this month with department brass, Acevedo and the group discussed how they think such posts erode public trust in the department and how they have been wrongly maligned.
They have since researched their legal options and decided that from now on, they might launch formal investigations into such posts, Acevedo said. He said investigators might seek search warrants or subpoenas from judges to learn the identities of the authors — he thinks some could be department employees — and possibly sue them for libel or file charges if investigators think a crime was committed.
"A lot of my people feel it is time to take these people on," Acevedo said. "They understand the damage to the organization, and quite frankly, when people are willfully misleading and lying, they are pretty much cowards anyway because they are doing so under the cloak of anonymity."
The effort to crack down on potentially illegal statements or comments that are possibly libelous — those published with the goal of defaming a person — is the second time in recent months that the department has confronted new social media.
In March, the social networking site Twitter shut down a fake account that pretended to issue official Austin police bulletins after the department and the Texas attorney general's office complained.
University of Texas law professor David Anderson said the hosts of sites where potentially libelous comments are posted are granted immunity by federal laws. Those who post comments can still be sued, however.
State lawmakers this year passed a law that took effect Sept. 1 making it a third-degree felony to use another person's name to post messages on a social networking site without their permission and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten.
Along with Internet blogs that offer readers a chance to give their opinions, media outlets — including the American-Statesman — in recent years have begun allowing readers to make comments online about stories and blogs.
The American-Statesman has a policy on what people can write in online comments. The newspaper asks that people keep their comments civil, not engage in personal attacks and not use profanity or racial or ethnic slurs. Comments about a person's sexual orientation or religion also are grounds for the removal of a comment.
Acevedo said he and other officers in recent months have faced allegations of sexual impropriety and suggestions that they engaged in quid pro quo behavior. A police commander has had his name falsely used as the author of comments about the department.
Acevedo said that in several cases, he thinks department employees were responsible for comments that appeared on sites such as Statesman.com. Officers and civilian workers who were responsible for the comments could face disciplinary action.
According to police policy, employees are barred from criticizing or ridiculing the department, its policies or employees in speech or in writing when it is "defamatory, obscene or unlawful." Rules also prohibit such speech or writing when it affects "the confidence of the public in the integrity of the department and its employees."
"If you want to criticize, critique, question actions, that's allowable under the First Amendment, and we encourage that," Acevedo said. "When you start actually representing facts, when they are absolutely outright lies, that can lead to civil liability and, potentially, criminal liability."
Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr recently updated department policies prohibiting people from posting obscene or defamatory comments on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Department spokeswoman Michelle DeCrane said Thursday that officials have not yet discussed how they will enforce the updated policy.
According to published reports, lawsuits have been popping up nationally involving anonymous online speech.
However, the Associated Press has reported that most of the cases fail because statements of opinion are protected under the First Amendment. Courts are requiring officials to show they have a legitimate defamation claim — that is, one involving a false assertion of fact that hurts someone's reputation.