Law Against Threatening Public Officials Unconstitutional

A Louisiana law making it a crime to threaten a public official is unconstitutional because it’s too broad, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held.

The law goes far beyond threats of violence and covers threats to do lawful things such as file a lawsuit or challenge an incumbent office holder, Judge Jerry E. Smith said Aug. 3.

Even assuming the law covers only threats made with “corrupt intent, defined as the intent to obtain something that the speaker is not entitled to as a matter of right,” it would cover a threat to sue an officer making a lawful arrest — a threat that is protected by the First Amendment, it said.

In fact, the Louisiana Court of Appeals has upheld the conviction of a man who threatened to sue a police officer if he was arrested.

The federal appeals court also pointed out that the comments appended to the statute state that it “should include threats of harm or injury to the character of the person threatened as well as actual or threatened physical violence.”

The statute criminalizes “public intimidation,” which is defined as “the use of violence, force, or threats upon” a public officer or employee “with the intent to influence his conduct in relation to his position, employment, or duty.”

Travis Seals and Ali Bergeron were arrested under the statute and brought this federal court challenge.

Judges Jacques L. Wiener Jr. and Don R. Willett also sat on the panel.

Loughlin & Loughlin represented Seals and Bergeron. The Louisiana Attorney General’s office represented the state.

The case is Seals v. McBee, 2018 BL 277950, 5th Cir., 17-30667, 8/3/18.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alisa Johnson in Washington at ajohnson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bloomberglaw.com