Web-erasing: Strom's JADE blog inspires Bell bill
The woman jailed for publishing the address of an undercover drug enforcer has apparently inspired a new measure in the General Assembly that might let police officers pull their addresses offline–- even though civil libertarians say that the underlying law that criminalized the I HeArTE JADE blog and put its creator behind bars for a month is unconstitutional.
“This bill was inspired by a local website that seeks to identify undercover policemen,” says bill patron Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville). “The site includes photos of their homes that come from government sites. For the safety of the officers, I want to help them get that stuff off the government sites.”
Bell's bill, HB1382 (one of 41 he's introduced this session) was originally written so that any person or business–- such as a blog or newspaper–- publishing an officer's address was required to remove it after receiving a written demand.
"It doesn't look much like the original," says Bell. "This is more narrowly drawn."
And that's a good thing, says Kent Willis of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It had a pretty low threshold before," says Willis. "All it took was a written demand from an officer with no court proceeding. Any officer could write any person and say, 'Take it down; I feel threatened.'"
Under the revised bill, an officer must petition a circuit court to remove his address and phone number on government websites. In Albemarle and Charlottesville, property records are available online.
But what about amending a bill that the ACLU considers unconstitutional?
"There's more than one blatantly unconstitutional law on the books," says Willis. "It often takes the court to change the law."
Willis cites Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws like Virginia's still-on-books ban on oral sex and other consenting adult practices was unconstitutional. Even though Virginia's sodomy law made such practices felonies, Willis notes that the General Assembly "couldn't muster the gumption" to vote it down.
As for the person who inspired Bell's new bill, Elisha Strom calls it "pretty rotten" because government websites are a key trove of information for the average citizen.
"Overall, it's trampling on everyone's freedom except law enforcement's," says Strom, who spent a month in jail following her July 16 arrest. "Most people wouldn't bat an eyelid about this, but in the long run it's taking more freedom away from us."