A war over unfastened speech is playing out in a federal courthouse as a Falkville blogger seeks to dam defamation claims filed towards her with the aid of Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin.
“The blog incorporates statistics of a legitimate public problem which are subjects of a public hobby,” Brandy Lee of Birmingham, one of Glenda Lockhart’s attorneys, stated Thursday.
Glenda Lockhart has for years run a weblog critical of Franklin and numerous of her deputies. She sued Franklin and three Sheriff’s Office employees in October 2016, alleging they illegally searched her enterprise and paid an informant — Lockhart’s grandson — to hack her computers. The motive for the alleged misconduct, consistent with Lockhart, turned into to close down the blog.
Lee, who this week filed a motion to disregard the counterclaim, stated the weblog performed a part in remedying a public problem with the aid of bringing attention to misconduct through the defendants.
“For instance, the blog made statements approximately the incorrect use of prison meals cash,” Lee stated. “This records changed into validated real. The sheriff invested finances contrary to a federal court order in a now-bankrupt business enterprise run by means of a felon.”
Franklin in 2015 used $a hundred and sixty,000 in prison food money for a high-interest loan to Priceville Partners LLC, which declared financial ruin in March 2016. She turned into observed in contempt of court docket remaining 12 months because the use of the money violated a 2009 federal order, issued when Greg Bartlett became sheriff.
On Tuesday, Morgan County voters surpassed a neighborhood constitutional change barring the sheriff from pocketing prison meals money. The modification also raises the sheriff’s salary, even though Franklin will no longer benefit. She did now not run for a third term and could get replaced through Hartselle Police Chief Ron Puckett in January, while the change takes an impact.
Due to First Amendment concerns, statements made approximately public officials or matters of a public problem — even supposing false — are not grounds for a defamation claim except the legitimate can demonstrate they had been published with “real malice
Corruption by public officers and their delegates in the sheriff’s office is a real public difficulty which I agree with will protect my customer’s unfastened speech,” Lee said.
Lockhart’s movement seeks to dismiss a 61-page counterclaim filed remaining month through Franklin, deputies Robert Wilson and Blake Robinson, and statistics technology worker Justin Powell. The counterclaim alleges Lockhart is at risk of them for defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other reasons of motion.
False statements inside the weblog, in step with Franklin and the others, had been supposed to harm their reputations, to decrease them “within the estimation of the community, and to discourage contributors of the network from associating or dealing” with them.
“Glenda Lockhart hates Ana Franklin, Bob Wilson, Blake Robinson, and Justin Powell, and resents the whole lot they stand for,” in keeping with the counterclaim. “Her moves are born out of resentment, and (are) not anything less than a vendetta and personal vengeance.”
Lockhart’s weblog posts have also made Franklin and the deputies goals of crook investigations, in step with the counterclaim.
The unfounded allegations observed on the blog, in addition to baseless accusations through Lockhart have caused and facilitated diverse investigations by means of governmental entities, that have again and again investigated allegations of corruption,” in keeping with the pleading.
Lee said constitutional unfastened speech guarantees within the First Amendment restricting defamation claims through public officials shield her customer from legal responsibility for her blog posts.
“Defendants haphazardly assert that a spread of statements made on the weblog is defamatory,” in step with the motion to disregard the counterclaim. “All of the statements involve subjects that relate to actions taken by the defendants in their capability as Morgan County Sheriff’s Office employees, which can be all of public concern.”
Franklin’s lawyer, William Gray of Birmingham, stated the blog does no longer advantage First Amendment safety from his clients’ defamation claims.
“We don’t suppose the First Amendment applies to Morgan County Whistleblower,” he stated Thursday. “She didn’t have the right to do the things we’ve complained about. We think in due time the court will believe us.”
Lockhart’s legal professional argues within the motion that the counterclaim lacks sufficient element for the courtroom to determine whether false statements have been made, or whether or not the defendants’ privateness was invaded.
The motion points to some of the counterclaim’s allegations:
• “Whistleblower posts have proven pix of Franklin and romantic interests at private dinners, and falsely accused Franklin of indulging too closely in alcoholic liquids at the same time as in public.”
• “Moreover, the weblog has time and again and purposefully given exposure to personal financial records referring to the (defendants), publicizing photographs of the private property, and divulging non-public and, extra regularly than no longer, false statistics about the (defendants), with the intent to harm… .”
These allegations, according to Lockhart’s movement, pass over statistics the court docket wishes.
“Without these records, this court can’t decide whether they could be rather offensive to an affordable person or whether the booklet is of the valid subject to the general public,” consistent with the movement.
In another improvement inside the case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Thursday rejected a subpoena by means of Franklin that sought to acquire a thumb pressure that allegedly contained keylogger software provided by using the Sheriff’s Office to Lockhart’s grandson to locate Lockhart’s passwords. Franklin has argued the software program became in no way mounted on Lockhart’s computers.
In a letter to Franklin’s legal professional, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama Jay Town rejected the subpoena due to the fact compliance might violate a Justice Department regulation that bars disclosures that would “screen investigatory records compiled for law enforcement functions, and would intrude with enforcement court cases or expose investigative strategies and processes the effectiveness of which would thereby be impaired