On the World Wide Web

Law enforcement agencies are becoming more and more computer savvy, and not simply by fighting crime. They're also learning how to use the Internet as a public relations, marketing, as well as, informational tool.

Several departments have started blogs. It's a great way to communicate programs and initiatives, explain the agency's positions and actions, and keep in touch with the community. Individual officers may also blog or author personal home pages. But having an online presence isn't as simple as posting to the Web.

First, Internet law is a liquid thing at best. Since it's so new, there's not a large body of legal precedence from which courts can draw when hearing cases. However, thus far they've been pretty consistent about liability issues.

An individual has the same right to freedom of speech on the Internet as he does in real life, but some subtleties in the law could change over time. Here are some good things to know about electronic speech.

  • If your department has a homepage or blog, you are directly responsible for any information posted on the site. However, if you have a public comments section, you are not responsible for the comments posted that may constitute libel.

    This is the way the law looks at this issue: Your blog or site is like a restaurant. If someone says something libelous in a restaurant, could the restaurant owner be held responsible? Of course not. And you are not held responsible for what others say, either. If someone posts something offensive and you take it down, then you should probably police all of the comments. Best policy: if you allow public comments, moderate them first and don't allow anything you suspect will breed problems.

  • Internet speech does not differ from any other type in that it is constitutionally protected speech.
  • Learn the difference between libel and opinion. Here are examples: John is an idiot. (Not libelous because it's an opinion and people are entitled to have one.) John robs banks. (Not libelous if John is a bank robber, but if John doesn't rob banks, then it becomes libelous.) John has an STD. (This one is trickier. Some court cases have held that even if some highly personal information is true, it may not be protected if it falls into the category of certain types of intimate information.)
  • Public officials, celebrities, journalists, etc., have fewer rights under libel laws because in order for libel to occur, the speech must be untrue and the person who says it must know it's untrue. The knowledge that something's a lie is the hard part to prove. Thus, if a blog alleges the mayor had an affair with his secretary and the mayor files suit, he must prove that the blogger lied and knows it.
  • If officers blog or have personal home pages, they should be aware that improper postings have cost others their jobs. For example, a flight attendant was fired after posting personal photographs of herself on her blog. The photos, which were in no way lewd, were too sexy for the airline and they let her go. Other bloggers have also lost their jobs for talking about work and the people with whom they work.

The upshot — stay abreast of agency-connected Web sites and blogs. Make sure what's posted doesn't compromise or reflect negatively on the department. While free speech should be encouraged, anything that could be prejudicial to an agency in a lawsuit or public opinion (such as comments on MySpace, racism in a blog, inappropriate photographs of officers in uniform) should be high on the agency's radar.

Using the Internet as a tool for facilitating the interchange of ideas with the community is a good idea and freedom of speech should be encouraged. Just make certain that, instead of enhancing the agency's reputation, the Net isn't acting as a tool to bring it down.

A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at carolemoore@ec.rr.com.