Civil Liberties

St. Louis Cops Claim Free-Speech Right to Warn Employers About Your Tweets They Don't Like



Leigh Maibes is a St. Louis-based real estate agent. Unrelatedly, Maibes has been actively tweeting—under the alias @stacksizshort—about recent events in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. But when some of her criticisms of area police tactics offended Officer Keith Novara, he called Maibes' employers to tattle on her. 

In a conversation Maibes recorded and posted to YouTube, Novara admits to calling and texting her boss to warn about her Twitter activity. "Yeah I was just letting the city businessmen know, in the city, that if their phones were blowing up that's what it was from," Novara says. 

But if her employers' phones were blowing up because of her Twitter activity, wouldn't they already be aware of this? Considering that Novara is a 21st century human being who ostensibly understands how phones work, his rationale reeks of bullshit.

Maybe Novara was hoping to get Maibes in trouble. Maybe he was just trying to stop her from further tweeting. But whatever his aspirational outcome, calling in his official capacity as a St. Louis police offer to inform Maibes' boss of her completely legal, unrelated-to-work activity seems an awful lot like criminal intimidation and harassment

The video (below) of Maibes' call with Novara is both infuriating and wryly amusing as he offers a litany of vague and nonsensical justifications. He was compelled to act, you see, because of her "inciteful" tweets, which were contrary to "the neighborhood ownership model". He doesn't "understand what (her) point is," because he "was not in violation of any law." 

"It doesn't constitute police harassment or intimidation to stop my activism work?" asks Maibes.

"No, not at all," Novara responds. In fact, it's Maibes who should be ashamed, really. "You think that your tweets were appropriate and everything is fine then as far as what you say against police and all that?" he asks.

Maibes filed a formal complaint, and Novara has since been placed under investigation (though not suspended) by the St. Louis Police Department, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He's being represented by the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which insists Novara's actions were protected First Amendment speech.

"The Association has hired an attorney that specializes in First Amendment rights to represent Officer Novara," said the union's business manager, Jeff Roorda, in a chilling statement. Roorda continued: 

It is confounding to us as an organization of law enforcement professionals that apologists for the so-called 'peaceful protestors' in Ferguson and the Shaw neighborhood defend throwing bricks, bottles and rocks at police officers as 'freedom of speech or freedom of expression'. Then, those very same people feign righteous indignation when a police officer who is fed up with the corrosive, anti-police rhetoric that this particular agitator has made in a public forum on social media, exercises his freedom of speech and freedom of expression in a truly peaceful manner.

(…) Police Officers are not second-class citizens. They enjoy First Amendment rights and every other right that is enjoyed by every other citizens and we will aggressively defend those rights to our last breath. 

This is clearly a First Amendment issue, just not in the way the police union seems to think it is. Lawyer and blogger Scott Greenfield notes that "wearing a badge doesn't forfeit the free speech of the person," and had Novara merely called Maibes' employer as a griping citizen it would be a different matter. But that's not what he did. Greenfield continues:

Rather, (the call) came from Police Officer Keith Novara, and the speech of a person who presents himself in his official governmental capacity is no longer the individual's free speech, but the official person's speech. And the latter is not free.

(…)Novara's "exercise" of free speech, behind his official capacity as a police officer, was clearly intended as intimidation. 

"If a government actor is retaliating against someone who is engaged in First Amendment activity, that is not lawful," Jeffrey Mittman, executive director for the ACLU of Missouri, told the Post-Dispatch.