January 24, 2006

January 24, 2006

Police Harassed and Intimidated Online Critics, ACLU Charged

PITTSBURGH -- The American Civil Liberties Union Greater Pittsburgh Chapter announced today that it has reached a settlement with a Washington County municipality and its suspended police chief that will ensure the freedom of residents to debate political issues on a local Web site without fear of retaliation from local authorities.
"Just because a police chief or other public officials don't like what is being said about them on an in Internet bulletin board doesn't give them license to use official powers to threaten and intimidate critics, or take steps to shut down the Web site," said Witold Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director. "As the saying goes, if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen."
The settlement arises out of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2004, charging that North Franklin Township police chief Mark Kavakich had attempted to use criminal subpoenas to learn the identities of residents who had criticized him on www.localscoop.net, an Internet community forum. The lawsuit also charged that Kavakich, who has since been suspended from the North Franklin police department pending an investigation of unspecified conduct, had threatened to arrest those who refused to cooperate with his investigation of the online critics.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Terri and Munir Chavla of North Franklin, who the founders and operators of www.localscoop.net.
The settlement announced today includes a consent order that extends and strengthens an original temporary restraining order issued at the outset of the case. The original order prohibited the North Franklin police from threatening to use criminal proceedings against critics on the Web site. The final order recently agreed to by the parties, and signed this morning by United States District Judge Joy Flowers Conti, expands on these restrictions and adds prohibitions against other kinds of harassing tactics, such as confronting critics in their homes or threatening to reveal their identities to their employers or others.
As part of the settlement, North Franklin Township also agreed to pay the sum of $42,000 to the Chavlas and their lawyers.
"We hope that this police chief now understands that he cannot criminally prosecute people for merely posting their opinions," said Terri Chavla.
The ACLU's Walczak said this case raises concerns about police intimidation and threats made against critics on the Internet. He noted that police officials need to pay more careful attention to the constitutional limits on their authority to investigate those critical of police activities.
"It is not an issue for the police when an Internet poster says something nasty about someone else, even if what they say is false and defamatory," said Walczak. He added that the victim can file a defamation suit, but the police have no business in the matter.
In addition to the Washington County case, the ACLU signed a court agreement in late December with the Pennsylvania State Police over a situation in which an officer convinced a Web host to shut down a Scranton couple's political Web site after they criticized a local official. That case, which is pending in federal court in Scranton, is Pilchesky v. Pennsylvania State Police. Information on Pilchesky v. Pennsylvania State Police is online at www.aclupa.org/pressroom/acludemandshalttostatepoli.htm
The Chavlas were represented by Walczak and ACLU cooperating attorney Ronald Barber of the Pittsburgh law firm Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick & Potter. The case is Chavla v. Kavakich, 04-CV-0594 (W.D.Pa., Conti, J.). Legal documents and additional information is online at www.aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/policechiefthreatensintern.htm

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