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Web case leads to questions of law, target // LAW QUESTIONED

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Legal experts on Thursday questioned whether the state could successfully prosecute two men whose World Wide Web page insulted a Lecanto High School teacher and student.

The state attorney's office has not announced what charges, if any, it will bring against Christopher Cohen and Ryan Vella.

But prosecutors face a tough road if they consider using chapter 836.11, which makes it a misdemeanor offense to publish unsigned material that is hateful or contemptuous.

"I'm amazed that it (the statute) has lasted as long as it has," said Robyn Blumner at the American Civil Liberties Union in Miami. "It's clearly unconstitutional. It will die a death after this case."

Shari Steele, who is with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco group that studies online civil liberties issues, said, "It's totally absurd."

Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at the University of Florida, said prosecuting the men could create a "fascinating case," raising many legal and constitutional issues.

The Web page, whose architects called themselves "Wrathlords," said the teacher and student were homosexual lovers. The page included the telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of the teacher and student as well as computer links to sexually explicit Web sites.

It did not include the authors' names or addresses. That point, sheriff's deputies said, was critical. The statute prohibits unsigned material that "tends to expose any individual or any religious group to hatred, contempt (or) ridicule."

Deputies cited that statute when arresting Cohen and Vella late Tuesday. The men, both 19, also were held on charges of destroying evidence. The Citrus Times is withholding the student's and teacher's names because of the nature of the case.

The publication statute received some local discussion last year when an anonymous author circulated a venomous document that maligned Jeff Dawsy, who is now the sheriff, his wife and sheriff's officials.

Authorities did not catch the author, so no prosecution was attempted.

The story is similar throughout Florida. The ACLU's Blumner said her office failed to find any Florida appellate court opinion that addresses the statute, which has been on the books since 1945.

The state court administrator's records indicate that in the past five years, only one person has faced such a charge. Prosecutors eventually dropped it.

Blumner said her office was trying to contact Cohen and Vella to lend support. If the state prosecutes, the ACLU will help challenge the law's basis; if the state declines, then the ACLU will seek a court action barring further prosecution under the law, which it considers unconstitutional.

"We have an absolute right to anonymous speech. It's a tradition, in fact, of this country," said Blumner, noting that The Federalist Papers were written under pseudonyms.

(Blumner, who has resigned as executive director of the state ACLU, will join the St. Petersburg Times staff as a columnist and editorial writer in September.)

In March, a high school student near Worcester, Mass., was suspended for five days after publishing a Web page that listed his school's "six most hated and feared teachers" and six students whom he considered the "losers of the week."

After experiencing political pressure and a visit from an ACLU lawyer, the school's principal lifted the suspension. ACLU officials in that state said their case was clear-cut and said they were not familiar with any attempt to prosecute someone for publication on the Internet.

Two years ago, in Bellevue, Wash., a graduating high school senior posted a similar page that ridiculed students and offered links to sites that featured sexually graphic material.

His principal withdrew support for the student's bid to become a National Merit Scholarship finalist, a move that might have cost him a $2,000 college scholarship. The principal further wrote letters to colleges the student hoped to attend.

This case is different in one obvious way: Cohen and Vella no longer attend Lecanto High, and thus are not subject to school discipline.

Even if the men are not prosecuted, the teacher and student could seek relief in civil court.

Generally speaking, a victim could win a judgment if a judge or jury finds that the defendant published defamatory material that humiliated the victim, held him up to ridicule and alleged that he was engaged in wrongdoing.

"Publishing" does not necessarily involve paper, of course. Placing an item on the World Wide Web _ which essentially is a large bulletin board _ probably would suffice.

The victims would have to show that they suffered damages.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which contains material from the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Mass., and the New York Times.