NEWARK, NJ -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) today moved to join a federal lawsuit filed against the City of Newark for disciplining a police officer who anonymously posted a message on a website that was critical of the Newark Police Department. The lawsuit also challenges the action of Newark police in improperly obtaining a subpoena to require an Internet Service Provider to turn over the identity of the then-anonymous web poster.
"Public employees have the right to speak openly about matters of public concern, and the right to do so anonymously on the web, if they choose" said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "In this case, the Newark Police Department violated both of those rights."
In February of 2006, the plaintiff in the case, Officer Louis Wohltman, anonymously posted messages about the integrity and competence of the Newark police department on http://www.newarkspeaks.com a website on which people engage in dialogue about local issues.
Due to the fact that Newark Police Department supervisors apparently disliked the content of the anonymous web messages they went to great -- and ultimately illegal -- lengths to uncover the identity of the web poster. Despite the fact that what Wohltman wrote did not amount to an illegal threat, the police department improperly used the criminal grand jury subpoena process to obtain Wohltman's identity. Then, the department suspended Wohltman for nine months without pay for making the critical statements.
This is the second time in as many weeks that the ACLU-NJ has become involved in a case in which the Newark Police Department allegedly tried to suppress citizens' First Amendment rights. Last week, the ACLU-NJ, along with the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice, filed a lawsuit (Lima v. Newark Police Department) against the Newark Police Department on behalf of newspaper editor Roberto Lima, whom police arrested and held in custody until he relinquished photos his staff took of a dead body found in a Newark alleyway.
The case involving Officer Louis Wohltman is captioned Wohltman v. The City of Newark, et al., and was filed in the United States District Court in Newark. The ACLU-NJ's filing today is to request permission to participate in the case as amicus curiae ("friend-of-the-court") and to provide the court with the legal context in which to analyze the facts of the case.
Louis Wohltman is directly represented by Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson, as well as by Rubin Sinins of Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins.