Louisiana Sheriff Prosecutes Blogger, Likely Violated First Amendment

Jennifer Anderson set up an anonymous blog and Facebook page called “Exposedat.” Her goal was to highlight and question intertwined personal and business relationships involving public officials in her parish in Louisiana. (Louisiana doesn’t have counties; they have “parishes.”) She made a particular set of postings that got her into hot water with the local sheriff.

The Facebook page for Exposedat.

Jennifer wrote about a man named Anthony Alford. He was appointed by the governor to be president of the parish’s Levee & Conservation District. Anthony also owns a private insurance company where the sheriff’s wife is the office manager. Anthony’s company was awarded public-insurance contracts by the parish, and Jennifer wrote about it.

Anthony, likely unhappy with the bad press, complained about Exposedat to the sheriff, who ordered one of his detectives to investigate the anonymous posts. The detective eventually identified Jennifer as the source. The sheriff ordered the detective to get a search warrant for Jennifer’s laptop pursuant to a charge of criminal defamation. He did, and then seized her laptop.

The detective, however, did not mention in his application for a search warrant that Anthony had been appointed by the governor to be president of the local levee board. The detective mentioned Anthony only as the owner of a private insurance company. This was a big deal because the Supreme Court in 1964 (and the Louisiana State Supreme Court thereafter) said that it would be a violation of the First Amendment to use that same statute to prosecute someone for writing about “public officials.” Jennifer appealed the search warrant, pointed out that Anthony was a “public official,” and won–the state appeals court found that the search and seizure was unconstitutional because “the conduct complained of [was] not a criminally actionable offense.”

Jennifer then went on the offensive. She sued the sheriff for violating her rights under the First and Fourth Amendments. The sheriff moved to dismiss the case, arguing that he should have qualified immunity (meaning he shouldn’t be liable) because, even if Jennifer’s rights were violated, those rights were not “clearly established.” The court disagreed, ruled for Jennifer, and allowed the case to go forward. The court reiterated that what the sheriff was investigating was not a crime and that “any prudent person would have known so.”

Case: Anderson v. Larpenter, No. 16-CV-13733 (E.D. La. July 19, 2017) (opinion here)

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