Virginia Civil Liberties Group Says First Amendment Protects Speaker’s Right to Disseminate Publicly Available Information.

Charlottesville, VA – The ACLU of Virginia is offering legal assistance to a woman who was arrested and jailed for using her website to report on the activities of the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force (or JADE).
Elisha Strom spent several weeks in the Charlottesville jail after being arrested for listing the name and address of one of the JADE Task Force members on her blog, I HeArTE JADE. Ms. Strom obtained the information through the Albemarle County GIS system, which allows users to conduct on-line searches for property ownership information. A preliminary hearing in her case is scheduled for mid-September.
“The government can’t put information on one of its public websites then turn around and punish someone for publishing the same information on her own website,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “That is both patently ridiculous and a violation of free speech.”
Ms. Strom has been charged with violating Virginia Code § 18.2-186.4, which makes it a felony to publish the name or other identifying information of a law enforcement officer with the “intent to coerce, intimidate, or harass.”
“There is no indication from the blog entries that Ms. Strom intended to coerce, intimidate or harass the officer whose name was published,” added Willis. “Furthermore, courts have struck down as unconstitutional state laws that ban anything less than a true threat in such situations. The Virginia law is unconstitutionally overbroad in this regard and needs to be rewritten.”
At this time, the ACLU has offered to provide legal assistance to Ms. Strom, who is currently represented by a court-appointed attorney. Whether or not she will accept ACLU assistance and, if so, what form that assistance will take has not been determined.
Last year, the ACLU successfully represented B.J. Ostergren in a legal challenge to a Virginia law that prohibited the dissemination of another person’s Social Security Number. Ms. Ostegren, a privacy rights advocate fighting for stronger laws against identity theft, downloaded Social Security Numbers of elected officials from publicly accessible government websites to demonstrate to state officials how easy such information is to obtain.

Contact: Kent Willis, (office) 804-644-8022

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