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A Louisiana law that makes it a crime to threaten a public official is overly broad and thus unconstitutional, a federal appeals court has ruled.

"Because the meaning of 'threat' is broad enough to sweep in threats to take lawful, peaceful actions — such as threats to sue a police officer or challenge an incumbent officeholder — (the law) is unconstitutionally overbroad," according to an opinion published Friday by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate ruling stems from two lawsuits filed by men in Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes who were booked on public intimidation after threatening to get the officers arresting them fired. 

Fifth U.S. Circuit judges Jerry E. Smith, Jacques Loeb Wiener Jr. and Don Willett on the appeals court heard the case in June. Smith penned the opinion. 

Louisiana has a public intimidation law that makes it a felony to "use violence, force or threats upon (a person) with the intent to influence his conduct in relation to his position, employment or duty." The law applies to public employees, jurors, trial witnesses, election officials and school bus drivers. It carries a maximum penalty of five years at hard labor. 

The Livingston and Tangipahoa men challenged the law in separate federal suits filed in the past two years on the grounds the Louisiana law violates their First Amendment right to free speech. 

Two judges in separate federal courts agreed with them. U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo, who serves in the New Orleans-based Eastern District of Louisiana, ruled in July 2017 that the law is unconstitutionally broad. Brian Jackson, chief judge for Baton Rouge-based Middle District of Louisiana, wrote in a September 2017 decision that criticizes that law that "our constitution guarantees a citizen's right to criticize government officials without fear of retribution."

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry appealed the ruling from the New Orleans court to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Landry says the law is narrow because it applies only when someone has the "corrupt intent" to bribe or extort a public official with his or her words. 

"A nonviolent threat communicated to a public employee in order for the offender to receive something to which he is not entitled as a matter of right will, almost always, be indistinguishable from extortion," the AG's office wrote in an appeals filing.

But Smith, the appellate judge, found that Louisiana Revised Statute 14:122 criminalizes lawful actions such as boycotts and lawsuits.

"To be sure, it covers a large swath of unprotected speech, including true threats and core criminal speech, such as extortion and threats to engage in truly defamatory speech made with actual malice," Smith wrote in the decision. "But the statute plainly reaches further."

It is not clear whether Landry will ask for a rehearing or seek an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. A spokeswoman did not respond to an email Monday seeking comment.

Kearney Loughlin, civil attorney for the plaintiffs in both cases, said he believes the appeals court ruling will hold.

"As far as I'm concerned, the public intimidation statute is going to be a dead letter going forward," Loughlin said.

The appellate case, Seals v. Mcbee, stems from a Tangipahoa Parish lawsuit filed by Travis Seals, of Hammond. According to the suit, sheriff's deputies were sent to investigate a complaint that Seals threatened to shoot his neighbor in December 2014. During the course of the arrest, the officers handcuffed and pepper-sprayed him. When he threatened to file a complaint against the officers and allegedly said he would get them fired, Seals was booked on public intimidation, in addition to aggravated assault.

A second case in Livingston Parish challenges the same statute and will be affected by the new ruling. In that case, a sheriff's deputy arrested William Aubin Jr., of Denham Springs, for saying, "I'm going to have your job; I'm gonna get you fired."

Twenty-first Judicial District Attorney Scott Perrilloux declined to prosecute both men. 


Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.