'Uh-Oh They're Here'

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Monday, August 10, 2009

A 34-YEAR-OLD woman, the mother of a 12-year-old girl, has been locked up in a Virginia jail for three weeks and could remain there for at least another month. Her crime? Blogging about the police.

Elisha Strom, who appears unable to make the $750 bail, was arrested outside Charlottesville on July 16 when police raided her house, confiscating notebooks, computers and camera equipment. Although the Charlottesville police chief, Timothy J. Longo Sr., had previously written to Ms. Strom warning her that her blog posts were interfering with the work of a local drug enforcement task force, she was not charged with obstruction of justice or any similar offense. Rather, she was indicted on a single count of identifying a police officer with intent to harass, a felony under state law.

It's fair to say that Ms. Strom was unusually focused on the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force, a 14-year-old unit drawn mainly from the police departments of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the University of Virginia. (Her blog at http://iheartejade.blogspot.com, expresses the view that the task force is "nothing more than a group of arrogant thugs.") In a nearly year-long barrage of blog posts, she published snapshots she took in public of many or most of the task force's officers; detailed their comings and goings by following them in her car; mused about their habits and looks; hinted that she may have had a personal relationship with one of them; and, in one instance, reported that she had tipped off a local newspaper about their movements.

Predictably, this annoyed law enforcement officials, who, it's fair to guess, comprised much of her readership before her arrest. But what seems to have sent them over the edge -- and skewed their judgment -- is Ms. Strom's decision to post the name and address of one of the officers with a street-view photo of his house.

All this information was publicly available, including the photograph, which Ms. Strom gleaned from municipal records. The task force's officers may have worked undercover on occasion, but one wonders about their undercover abilities, given that Ms. Strom was able to out them so consistently. Chief Longo warned Ms. Strom that her blog posts were scaring off informants and endangering the officers and their families, but he provided no evidence. At no point did Ms. Strom's blog express a threat, explicit or otherwise, to police or their sources.

Ms. Strom is not the most sympathetic symbol of free-speech rights. She has previously advocated creating a separate, all-white nation, and her blog veers from the whimsical to the self-righteous to the bizarre. But the real problem here is the Virginia statute, in which an overly broad, ill-defined ban on harassment-by-identification, specifically in regard to police officers, seems to criminalize just about anything that might irritate targets.

It should not be a crime to annoy the cops, whose raid on Ms. Strom's house looks more like a fit of pique than an act of law enforcement. Some of her postings may have consisted of obnoxious speech, but they were nonetheless speech and constitutionally protected. That would hold true right up through her last blog post, written as the police raid on her home began at 7 a.m.: "Uh-Oh They're Here."


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