Former LSU Law Dean Jack Weiss, a highly respected First Amendment lawyer, taught me a valuable lesson about some of our most cherished freedoms.
"First Amendment freedoms, including free speech, freedom of the press, open meetings and public records, don't get eroded in large cities where big news organizations can fight back," he said. "They die in small towns, where entrenched politicians control virtually everything and most people are too afraid or too poor to fight back."
I thought about Jack's lesson when I read about Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter's deputies executing a search warrant on the home of Houma police officer Wayne Anderson in hopes of learning the identity of an anonymous blogger who had the audacity to criticize Larpenter and other Terrebonne bigwigs.
Deputies took two computers and five cellphones from Anderson's home. Worst of all, the warrant was obtained under a dubious legal pretext called "criminal defamation" — a law that, as applied in this case, is patently unconstitutional. If Louisiana's criminal defamation law exists at all, it has been voided in cases involving public officials or people performing public duties.
Not that such quaint notions mean anything to Larpenter. The sheriff told WWL-TV, "If you're gonna lie about me and make it under a fictitious name, I'm gonna come after you."
The alleged lies that got under Larpenter's and others' skin appeared on a blog called "Exposedat" (www.exposedat.in/wp), which bills itself as "Terrebonne Parish's Underground Watchdog." The blogger, who uses the pseudonym John Turner, posted stories about local pols and their business entanglements. That apparently hit a nerve.
So did raiding a private residence to suppress free speech — especially political speech, which is the most protected form of speech in America. One would think that a judge, if not the sheriff, would know such black letter law. In this case, Judge Randall Bethancourt, who was not even the duty judge that day, signed the search warrant authorizing the raid anyway.
To Bethancourt's (belated) credit, he issued a stay order directing the seized evidence be secured by the Terrebonne Parish Clerk of Court — after Anderson's attorney called him. Nonetheless, at a hearing last Friday, the judge ruled the warrant was valid even though Anderson's attorney pointed out several glaring flaws in the warrant application. Anderson's attorney promised to appeal and to file a federal civil rights case against the sheriff's office.
Regardless of how the courts ultimately rule in this case, the damage has been done. Anderson, a veteran cop who denies any connection to Exposedat, was suspended from the Houma police force indefinitely, and the chilling effect of Larpenter's raid doubtless will echo up and down the bayou.
Which is exactly what the sheriff and the other parish politicos want.
One can only hope that Anderson's appeal and anticipated civil rights case will succeed. Who knows, maybe there's even a federal criminal statute that applies here. That would be a nice twist.