gavel

An officer of the law should not have to put up with threats to his job when he arrests somebody. But two men from Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes won a lawsuit, on constitutional grounds, after they were accused of public intimidation.

A federal appeals court agreed with U.S. district judges who found the language of the current law against public intimidation too broad.

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.

"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.

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.

We know of no case in which such a harsh maximum penalty was imposed. In the case of the Livingston and Tangipahoa men, when the incidents appeared to result in no harm to others, local officials declined to prosecute. Even so, the accused men filed lawsuits over the public intimidation charges.

The First Amendment to the Constitution is intended to protect free speech, and in a society as diverse as the United States, it must be broadly construed. Our liberties are precious, and the courts acted rightly to signal to the state that the public intimidation statute must be rewritten or shelved.

The attorney general's office is required to defend the state's laws and had reasonably pursued an appeal to the 5th Circuit judges in the lawsuits. Still, we question whether further appeals would be a waste of money and time for the state over this kind of case.

That said, what do guys think they're doing when threatening officers with political repercussions for their actions? Society should frown on these kinds of threats, even if the language of the U.S. and state constitutions does protect some people from criminal prosecution in such cases.