First Amendment rights at center of police officer's lawsuit for blog comments

By Dawn Geske | Jan 24, 2017

HOUMA — A Houma police officer has filed a lawsuit claiming his constitutional rights were violated when his home was searched and he was put on administrative leave over a complaint that he allegedly authored a defamatory blog about parish public officials and their relationships.

The police officer, Wayne Anderson, and his wife, Jennifer, filed a suit against the Sheriff’s Office, Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government, Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District, as well as Terrebonne Parish President Gordy Dove and Terrebonne Parish insurance agent Tony Alford, who initially filed the complaint against Anderson and his wife.

The blog, ExposeDAT, while no longer online, featured an array of unflattering articles about the Terrebonne Parish officials and their personal relationships. Officials were able to track the origins of the blog to the Andersons, where Wayne Anderson was stripped of his police officer duties and put on administrative leave while an investigation was held about the comments on the site.

The Andersons filed a suit in retaliation and have claimed that their civil liberties are being violated. Under the First Amendment, the Andersons may have protection as Wayne is a government employee, which the law is specifically designed to protect.

“The First Amendment only binds government,” Henry D.H. Olinde, attorney at Olinde and Mercer in Baton Rouge, told The Louisiana Record. “If he was employed by the government, he has First Amendment rights. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, the First Amendment is not an absolute right. It’s subject to different limitations depending on the context.”

While the First Amendment may protect the speech of a government employee, it doesn’t guarantee protection when that speech is made up of false or defamatory remarks.

“The other thing that is not protected by the First Amendment is recklessly or intentionally false speech,” Olinde said. “If it’s false, it’s not protected.”

The argument the Sheriff's Office mounted against the Anderson uses a rarely used criminal defamation statute in Louisiana. While the Sheriff's Office argues that the remarks made on ExposeDAT were false and defamatory, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal ruled the search warrant was unconstitutional in this instance on Aug. 25, 2016.

“I would say that if there was a finding that a search warrant violated his First Amendment right and his speech was protected by the First Amendment, I suspect that it’s going to be a difficult case to defend,” Olinde said.

The Andersons are one in a growing trend of cases regarding the internet and free speech. The Internet is an easy tool for anyone to post information whether it is true or accurate and it is expected to create a rise in cases of this nature going forward.

“The likelihood and frequency of these cases are likely on the rise,” Olinde said. “I know it is. There are plenty of them out there.”

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is ruling over the lawsuit after U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey recused himself from the case. Zainey's son works for the firm of attorney Conrad Williams III who, along with Houma lawyer Jerri Smitko, is representing the Andersons in the case.

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