Blogger Critical of Church Sees Rights Issue; Law Enforcement Says His Privacy Rights Weren't Violated, but There Are Concerns about the Investigation

By Brumley, Jeff | The Florida Times Union, April 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Blogger Critical of Church Sees Rights Issue; Law Enforcement Says His Privacy Rights Weren't Violated, but There Are Concerns about the Investigation


Brumley, Jeff, The Florida Times Union


Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

A formerly anonymous blogger says his First Amendment and privacy rights may have been violated when authorities revealed his identity to First Baptist Church in Jacksonville.

Police, the State Attorney's Office and a state law enforcement expert disagree.

But experts on criminal investigations, electronic privacy rights and constitutional law say the First Baptist case at the very least raises valid free speech and privacy questions.

Also disputed is whether the detective who identified and outed the blogger acted unethically because he belongs to the downtown megachurch and the security detail of its pastor, the Rev. Mac Brunson.

Since August 2007 Thomas Rich has blogged critically about Brunson's preaching and administrative style. Then a member of the church, Rich blasted everything from what he saw as the minister's extravagant salary and housing accommodations to what he described as a bullying preaching style and coercive fundraising tactics.

Rich said he plans to consult an attorney to determine if his free speech rights and privacy rights were violated when detective Robert Hinson of the Sheriff's Office sought and obtained this past fall the subpoenas that led to his unmasking. Banned from the church since December, Rich filed a complaint against the detective last week with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.

Some local and state law enforcement officials said Hinson acted ethically in investigating a case involving his own church. He also was correct to reveal Rich's name to church leaders even after determining no crimes were committed, they said. Current and past prosecutors said the subpoenas issued to Google were properly obtained.

"If it happened again we would handle it the same way," Undersheriff Frank Mackesy said.

STANDARDS FOR SUBPOENAS

The investigation began Sept. 29 after the church's top administrator, the Rev. John Blount, called Hinson directly, asking him to determine if stolen mail and surreptitious photos of Brunson's wife were related to heightened "vitriol" on Rich's blog, fbcjaxwatchdog.blogspot.com.

As a member of the Sheriff's Office intelligent unit, one of Hinson's responsibilities includes investigating threats against the city's major religious institutions, Mackesy said.

But a subsequent police report omitted any mention of stolen mail or suspicious photographs. It reported only Blount's concern about "an ongoing internet incident with possible criminal overtones."

Mackesy said it's not unusual for some information to be left off of reports to avoid tipping off suspects.

Both State Attorney Angela Corey and her predecessor, Harry Shorstein, said the "Internet incident" issue by itself was enough to justify the subpoenas Hinson sought for Rich's blog. Hinson also subpoenaed two additional blogs that don't focus on First Baptist.

"It may be nothing more than the police officer saying 'this person may be threatening' and we would issue the subpoena," said Shorstein, who was in office at the time of Hinson's investigation.

He added that a much higher burden of proof and a judge's approval are needed to obtain wire taps and search warrants.

FIRST AMENDMENT ISSUES

But Shorstein said he is disturbed that Hinson gave the church Rich's name despite finding no wrongdoing and closed the case Nov. 13. This raises free speech issues, Shorstein said.

"I think it would be inappropriate to use the subpoena power to aid a church or any entity ... to stop someone from using their First Amendment privileges," Shorstein said. …

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