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Sheriff's Office sues forum for law officers

The Sheriff's Office wants to know who is posting racist, sexist messages that it says is harming morale.

JUSTIN GEORGE and SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published August 4, 2005

TAMPA - The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office wants to rip the veil off an Internet message board and find out if "The Wand," "She Devil," "How About This!" and others own badges that should be suspended or revoked.

The office has sued LeoAffairs.com, a Web site that gives officers a forum to speak their mind anonymously using screen names. The sheriff wants a judge to stop the site from putting any sheriff's officers' posts online that violate the sheriff's codes of conduct. He also wants to identify through subpoena deputies who left false, crude, and revealing messages about the agency.

The sheriff's office contends the publicly accessible site is harming morale, undermining public trust and weakening internal discipline. The site founders - current and retired Tampa police officers - say the First Amendment protects its users.

On Wednesday, they posted this:

The HCSO's request is a broad fishing expedition to quell protected speech and discipline offensive opinions and is beneath their high ethics and integrity standards.

"This is not about free speech," Chief Deputy Jose Docobo said. "This is about employees in the Sheriff's Office violating existing Sheriff's Office rules by the nature of what they're posting."

Retired Tampa police Sgt. Jim Preston and Tampa Police officer Chip DeBlock launched LeoAffairs in 2002. The site was skeletal at first: a Q&A on the internal affairs process, information about Florida whistle-blower statutes and a link to the Policeman's Bill of Rights.

A single message board, set up in February 2003 for Tampa officers facing pension and contract negotiations, spawned boards for the Sheriff's Office, Lakeland officers and the Florida Highway Patrol.

Today the site has 50 message boards for law enforcement agencies from California to Florida, including boards for officers of the Pinellas and Pasco sheriff's offices, and the St. Petersburg, Tampa and Pinellas Park police departments.

They discuss everything from department policies and promotions to shift changes and upcoming charity events.

But the discussions can turn nasty, too.

What can anyone tell me about the ... affair from a few years ago? - "Lou" wrote about two officers.

So busy womanizing he has no time to go catch anyone doing anything. - a writer calling himself "How could He?" said about another.

He has the personality of a turnip. ... He has spent more time closing real estate deals ... than he's spent working in the interest of the office. He's not a ... major as you say. He is a cancer. - wrote "How about This!"

Other posts, Docobo said, have jeopardized lives by publishing details about undercover operations. Many messages have gained a sense of credibility, the chief deputy said, and not a day passes without the agency being asked about them. Some supervisors feel harassed and have considered retirement.

And then there is race.

Last month, the Times reported that more than two dozen postings on the message board contained racist language and homophobic insults.

Sheriff's Office policies prohibit officers from publicly criticizing the office; using profanity or vulgarity in public; and divulging information or making public statements without permission.

"Depending on the nature of the postings," Docobo said, "it could very well lead to dismissal."

LeoAffairs' "Terms of Use" policy notifies users that by contributing to the message boards "you agree that you will not submit messages to forums that are unlawful, threatening, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane or indecent."

"This is not a SLAM site, and the Forums should be used constructively," the Terms of Use policy states. "Messages not requiring anonymous status, but being abused, are subject to deletion by System Moderators. Anonymous Messages are not granted the same right to exist that properly identified messages are."

Site operator Jim Preston, a retired Tampa police officer, said Wednesday that two volunteer monitors are assigned to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office board. It's not always possible for them to keep up with the volume of postings, Preston said.

"They do it out of a courtesy, and sometimes they might miss something," he said. "These messages go on in real time, and there's 50 boards that hold 300 messages each."

Preston said that if he and DeBlock were to turn over the names or computer I.P. addresses of users, it would have a "chilling effect" on the message board.

Tampa lawyer Luke Lirot, known for taking on First Amendment cases, is representing LeoAffairs.

"We're not going to cooperate in revealing these people's identities so that the sheriff can discipline them," he said. "I don't want the law enforcement officers feeling harassed or intimidated, fearing they will be subject to discipline."

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