A federal judge ruled last week that a lawsuit against Terrebonne Sheriff Jerry Larpenter can proceed.
Terrebonne’s voters, taxpayers and residents deserve to know exactly what their sheriff did and why.
In an effort to shut down a political blog, ExposeDAT, Larpenter’s deputies raided the home of Jennifer and Wayne Anderson and seized their computers and telephones.
Larpenter tried to have the lawsuit over the raid thrown out of court by arguing that there was no harm done because the seized equipment was never searched.
A search of the phones and computers would certainly have added to the violation of the couple’s constitutional right to free speech.
But the raid itself was a violation, one that could chill political speech throughout our parish.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk agreed last week, saying that the outcome of the search is the important fallout from this case.
“That message — if you speak ill of the sheriff of your parish, then the sheriff will direct his law enforcement resources toward forcibly entering your home and taking your belongings under the guise of a criminal investigation — is inseparable from the injury and would certainly chill anyone ... from engaging in similar constitutionally protected speech in the future,” Africk wrote.
This has been an unfortunate episode from the beginning.
Larpenter pursued an investigation of the Andersons based on a criminal defamation law that was decades ago ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The idea that the sheriff would try to silence political speech by intimidating bloggers, searching their homes and seizing their personal property could well have the effect of silencing future criticism.
That is a deeply troubling thought in a nation where our robust marketplace of ideas is crucial to our free system of self-government.
Fortunately, Africk ruled that the potential harm here extends far beyond the Andersons’ computer equipment and the information it may have contained.
The potential harm of the Sheriff’s Office search goes to the heart of the public’s relationship with our government. We should be able to comment on our public officials and their actions in office without fearing a police search.
And if the sheriff allows such a scenario to play out at the expense of political speech, he should have to answer for it in court.
Africk’s decision certainly sets us on a path toward resolution.
Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, not of any individual.