Blogger's Lawyer: City, State Settle Suit; THE CASE Detective Who Is Church Member Uncovered the Identity of an Online Critic. THE TERMS Blogger Will Receive $50,000 and Discuss Ethics Policies with the Sheriff

Article excerpt

Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

The city and state have agreed to settle the free-speech and privacy-rights lawsuit filed in 2009 by a blogger critical of the Rev. Mac Brunson of First Baptist Church, the blogger's attorney said Wednesday.

Once filed and approved, the settlement will end legal action that said the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and State Attorney's Office violated the blogger's First Amendment right to anonymity and free speech by wrongfully uncovering his identity and providing it to the church in 2008.

The settlement was reached after all parties entered mediation Tuesday, said Michael Roberts, the attorney representing former First Baptist member Tom Rich.

Under the terms of the settlement, Roberts said, Rich will be paid $50,000 and Sheriff John Rutherford will meet with him and Roberts to discuss ethics policies governing police. The city General Counsel's Office will also train police on how privacy and free-speech rights can be affected during investigations like the one that targeted Rich, Roberts said.

Deputy General Counsel Howard Maltz said he could not confirm a settlement had been reached. Maltz said in an e-mail that settlement negotiations had occurred but he would not discuss the outcome.

The Sheriff's Office referred all questions to Maltz, as did the Florida Attorney General's Office, which represented the state prosecutor sued in the case.

First Baptist, which was not a subject of the suit but remains the focus of another lawsuit brought by Rich, said it has no comment.

Roberts said the settlement came a day after he filed a motion for summary judgment. The motion relied mostly on the sworn testimony of Sheriff's Office detective Robert Hinson.

Hinson opened the investigation in late 2008 into Rich's blog, called FBCWatchdog. Rich often used the blog as a platform to anonymously criticize Brunson and other church leaders about administrative and financial decisions.

Rich has consistently argued that Hinson's membership in the church, for which he also provides part-time security, was a conflict of interest. He claimed Hinson opened the investigation upon the church's request.

Evidence gathered by Roberts revealed Hinson is a deacon at the church and a member of its disciplinary committee. That committee was later convened to administer church punishment for what pastors considered Rich's sinful behavior on the blog.

According to Hinson's testimony cited in the motion, he opened the investigation at the church's behest and closed it shortly after learning Rich's identity and providing it to John Blount, administrative pastor at First Baptist. …