We all know that the Internet, at times, can be the bane of civil conversation. But protected speech is protected speech. If people want to hop online in order to denounce political figures in the crudest of terms, they are entitled to as much First Amendment protection as the New York Times or the Washington Post.

free speech offenders Narragansett and Barrington police
Unfortunately, police in the Rhode Island towns of Narragansett and Barrington don't see it that way.

Last October, NARRAGANSETT police filed criminal "cyberstalking" charges in two separate incidents. In the first, Themistocles Faraone was charged for comments he made about Douglas McLaughlin, a retired police officer who was running for town council. In the second, Michael Handrigan was charged for posts he'd made about town-council member James Durkin. In both cases, the comments were made on a Craigslist forum for "rants and raves."

In calling on Narragansett Police Chief Dean Hoxsie to drop the charges, Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, said, "We do not think it is a coincidence that both of the alleged 'victims' leading to these charges are politicians. While the comments that were posted are nasty, crude, and offensive, they were not threatening in any way." Brown added that the charges could create "a significant chilling effect on freedom of speech by town residents."

The Narragansett case was complicated. According to the Narragansett Times, Handrigan had been arrested in 2008 and accused of assaulting Durkin outside a Cumberland Farms. And police said Faraone's postings accused McLaughlin of sexual misconduct. And despite the ACLU's take on the matter, Narragansett police said Handrigan's comments were, in fact, threatening.

Yet if the police had been genuinely concerned about those issues, they presumably would not have dropped the charges against both men in a matter of weeks — in Handrigan's case, on the advice of the state attorney general's office.

The BARRINGTON case was considerably less serious, involving meatballs and the threat of meatballs. Last August, Police Chief James LaCross approached the Barrington Times and demanded that the paper help him find out who had posted an anonymous threat about Town Manager Peter DeAngelis. Among other things, the commenter wrote, "You better check what is in that meatball sandwich you are eating." Alert the Secret Service!

Or, as the ACLU's Brown put it, "True threats are not protected. But there can be no doubt that, crude as these comments were, they were rhetorical."

File this one under: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

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