Free Speech Groups Demand Release of Florida Man Jailed Over a Web Site

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
December 22, 2005 12:00 am

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Webmaster Sits in Jail While Facing Obscenity Charges

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

LAKELAND, FL — The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Free Speech Coalition and the First Amendment Lawyers Association today asked a state appeals court to release a Lakeland webmaster who was thrown in jail for allegedly posting obscene photographs on a Web site that is hosted in Europe.

“Sexual expression in cyberspace is protected by the First Amendment,” said Gainesville attorney Gary Edinger, who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the three organizations. “It’s unprecedented for government officials to use imprisonment to prevent the distribution of material over the Internet.”

In the 19-page friend-of-the-court brief filed today, the three organizations asked the Second District Court of Appeal to reverse a lower court ruling by Circuit Judge J. Dale Durrance authorizing the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to revoke Christopher Wilson’s bail and throw him back in jail simply because there was “probable cause” to believe that pictures on Wilson’s Web site were obscene.

Wilson, a 28-year-old former police officer, made headlines in recent months when American military officials discovered that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were sending him gruesome images of war in exchange for free access to a site that allows members of the public to post and view amateur pornographic photos and videos. Wilson, who operated the site from his Lakeland home, then posted the violent war photos on the site as a way to help spark debate about U.S. politics.

On October 7, he was arrested by Polk County Sheriff’s Officers on obscenity charges for posting amateur photos submitted by other people, but not the violent war photos. He was released on $151,000 bond, and then while awaiting trial, moved to Orange County, Florida, where he continued operating the site, which is hosted in the Netherlands. The State Attorney’s Office then filed a motion to jail Wilson for operating the site outside of Polk County, which county officials argued violated the conditions of his release. A judge agreed with the county on December 16 and he is currently being held without bond in the Polk County Jail.

“This is a classic example of a censorship crusade by local government bureaucrats who are relying on their own subjective definition of obscenity to arrest someone even before any court has found that this Web site is illegal,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “What right do Polk County officials have to decide what people who live in Berlin and London and Hong Kong and New York access in the privacy of their own homes?”

Michelle L. Freridge, Executive Director of the Free Speech Coalition, added, “This case is typical of how obscenity law can be misused to censor unpopular speech. We are proud to stand with the ACLU and the First Amendment Lawyers Association in support of Chris Wilson, and we look forward to an expeditious and positive decision by the Second District Court of Appeal in this matter.”

The ACLU said it has been involved in virtually all of the landmark First Amendment cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and remains absolutely committed to the preservation of each and every individual’s freedom of expression. During the 1990s, the organization fought to protect free speech in cyberspace when state and federal government attempted to impose content-based regulations on the Internet. In 2004, the ACLU successfully challenged the Child Online Protection Act, which imposed draconian criminal sanctions, with penalties of up to $50,000 per day and up to six months imprisonment, for online material acknowledged as valuable for adults but judged “harmful to minors.”

The Free Speech Coalition is the trade association for the adult entertainment industry. With more than 3,000 members from every area of the industry, FSC lobbies on behalf of the industry in Sacramento, California and Washington, D.C., and enters into litigation when all other avenues have failed. According to the FSC, the Wilson situation is of profound concern because the Constitution of the United States expressly requires careful procedures before a court can say that expression exceeds constitutional protection. In this case, the FSC said those procedures appear to be seriously lacking.

The lawsuit names Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Jerry Hill, State Attorney for the Tenth Judicial Circuit, as defendants.

Edinger and Reed Lee of the Free Speech Coalition submitted the amicus brief on behalf of the three organizations.

Today’s brief is online at: http://www.aclufl.org/issues/free_speech/WilsonAmicusBrief.pdf

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