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Supreme Court draws distinctions in blogger Brewington case

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Blogger Daniel Brewington’s convictions for intimidating Dearborn Circuit Judge James Humphrey and obstruction of justice were upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court Thursday, but under different reasoning than the Indiana Court of Appeals applied.

Justices held that Brewington’s actions arising from being stripped of his children’s custody placed targets of his contempt in fear for their safety. The court found the appeals panel failed to distinguish between fear for one’s reputation and fear for one’s safety in affirming some of Brewington’s convictions.

“Many of Defendant’s statements, at least when viewed in isolation, threatened only to harm the victims’ reputations — hyperbolically accusing them of “child abuse” and the like. To the extent those statements were aimed at a public official or involved an issue of public concern, they are subject to the steep constitutional ‘actual malice’ standard for defamatory speech, and the Court of Appeals erred in relying on them to support … convictions," Justice Loretta Rush wrote in a unanimous 35-page opinion.

However, Brewington’s “statements and conduct, understood in their full context, clearly were meant to imply credible threats to the victims’ safety,” Rush wrote in Daniel Brewington v. State of Indiana, 15S01-1405-CR-309. The case drew national attention for its First Amendment implications after the Court of Appeals’ ruling.

At the center of the case are posts on family court blogs in which Brewington took aim at Humphrey, who presided in his custody case, Humphrey’s wife, and a psychologist who served as a custody evaluator in Brewington’s case. The posts for which Brewington was prosecuted included comments that Humphrey was a child abuser for stripping Brewington of custody and that Humphrey was playing with fire and Brewington was “an accomplished pyromaniac.”

“The ‘true threat’ inquiry requires reference to all the contextual factors — one of which is the anger and obsessiveness demonstrated even by the protected portions of Defendant’s speech. And Defendant had also demonstrated mental disturbance, volatility, violence, and genuine dangerousness directly to (Humphrey and the custody evaluator) during his years-long vendetta against them.

“In that context, Defendant’s conduct, including showing his victims against a backdrop of obsessive and volatile behavior that he knew where they lived, was clearly intended to place them in fear — not fear of merely being ridiculed, but fear for their homes and safety, the essence of an unprotected ‘true threat,'” the court held.

 “We therefore grant transfer and affirm Defendant’s convictions for intimidating the Judge and obstruction of justice as to the Doctor, finding the evidence sufficient to support those convictions under Indiana Code section 35-45-2-1(c)(1)-(3) without implicating constitutional free-speech protections. As to reversing Defendant’s intimidation convictions involving the Doctor and the Judge’s wife, and affirming his perjury conviction, we summarily affirm the Court of Appeals.

The opinion discusses at length Brewington’s actions toward the judge and doctor and his behavior in and out of the courtroom which the court found, in the totality of the circumstances, gave rise to credible fears for safety.

“There would be no doubt about that conclusion if Defendant, all in a single episode, had violently shouted and slammed piles of books in the courtroom, shaken his fist at the Judge and the Doctor, and told them, ‘You crooked child abusers! I’m a pyromaniac, I have guns and know how to use them, I’d like to beat you senseless, I know where you live, and I’m going to hold you accountable!’,” Rush wrote.

“Under those circumstances, it would be obvious that Defendant was making an unprotected ‘true threat’ against the victims, even if the phrase ‘crooked child abusers’ was protected speech. Defendant’s threats neither lose force, nor gain protection, merely because he built them up over the course of a years-long campaign of harassment.”

Rush wrote that Brewington’s First Amendment defense glossed over his “statements and conduct that gave rise to more sinister implications” for the safety of his targets. Citing the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling New York Times v. Sullivan, Rush wrote the court had a duty to “make an independent examination of the whole record, so as to assure ourselves that the [conviction] does not constitute a forbidden intrusion on the field of free expression.”

Brewington also argued that failure to instruct the trial court jury on the actual malice standard was error. The justices agreed that it was, but no relief was warranted because Brewington’s trial counsel pursued a strategic “all or nothing” First Amendment defense. “His general-verdict and instructional complaints were therefore invited error, not fundamental error,” the court held.

After almost two years in the Department of Correction, Brewington was freed Sept. 5, 2013, just ahead of oral arguments in his case.

“(W)e find ample evidence of true threats to support Defendant’s convictions for intimidating the judge and his attempted obstruction of justice regarding the psychologist — and find that the general-verdict and instructional errors he complains of were invited error, not fundamental error or ineffective assistance of counsel. On all other counts, we summarily affirm the Court of Appeals,” the court held.

Noted First Amendment scholar and UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh argued on behalf of a dozen amici who feared that if the Brewington verdict affirmed by the Court of Appeals stood, it would constitute a chilling effect on speech, opinions expressed in the media about public officials and political speech.

These amici presented briefs in Brewington’s case: the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, Eagle Forum, Hoosier State Press Association, Indianapolis Star, Indiana Association of Scholars, Indiana Coalition for Open Government, James Madison Center for Free Speech, NUVO Newsweekly, former IUPUI School of Journalism Dean James W. Brown and IUPUI professors Anthony Fargo and Sheila S. Kennedy.•

“I can’t speak to whether this decision is correct given the trial record and the state of Indiana ‘invited error’ law,” Volokh wrote on his blog The Volokh Conspiracy. “But I am glad that the Indiana Supreme Court recognized and reversed the legal error in the Indiana Court of Appeals opinion — the thing that my clients (who were the amici, not the defendant) were concerned about.

“Threatening to harshly criticize people’s actions, and thus to expose them to ridicule and disgrace (at least outside the special case of blackmail) is legal again in Indiana,” Volokh wrote.
 

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  • another pattern of suppressing dissent
    I think these "intimidation" statutes are phony. Most of them get applied in a really ad hoc, inconsistent, and sporadic fashion. They should all be void for vagueness.
  • Justice thou art woman!
    Loretta Rush is a breath of constitutional fresh air and has already showed herself to be a jurist of the highest caliber. Now to that she adds this, which is worthy of a statue in Indy: "It is every American’s constitutional right to criticize, even ridicule, judges and other participants in the judicial system — and those targets must bear that burden as the price of free public discourse." Every American, at least every Hoosier, owes Justice Rush a big thank you this day!

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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