Policing the Net


Is listing police officers' names, phone numbers, addresses, salaries, and Social Security numbers on a Web site the high-tech equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater? That was the argument made by the city of Kirkland, Washington, in March when it filed suit in King County Superior Court against anti-government gadfly William Sheehan.

Kirkland City Attorney Bill Evans argues that the site, JusticeFiles.org, is an "abuse" of free speech that threatens the police officers' privacy and safety. True, the information on display is already publicly and legally available. But, Evans argues, "Regardless of the source of the information, if you violate someone's privacy with your use of it, that doesn't make it legal."

This is not the first time Sheehan has found himself in a flap over his online activities. To date, JusticeFiles and its predecessors have battled with a private collections agency, with state representatives who voted to fund the Seattle Mariners' baseball stadium, with jittery network hosts, with angry pro-privacy hackers (the site was only intermittently available during the writing of this story), and with scores of police departments who refused—or tried to refuse—his requests for public disclosure of information.

The case bears some resemblance to the recent flap over "The Nuremberg Files," a site that lists the names and addresses of abortionists and crosses out those who have been killed. A 9th Circuit court ruled in March that the anti-abortion site is protected speech. For its part, JusticeFiles assures its readers that it does not advocate violence: "No actual police were harmed during the testing of this product…. [K]eep in mind that the same information we present here, is information that the police themselves have easily at their disposal when they investigate us."

Because the information posted on the site is legally available to anyone through public disclosure documents or private information gathering agencies, Kirkland may find itself in the unenviable position of arguing that it is permissible to procure this information but not to pass it along to others.