ACLU joins lawsuit in New Jersey

January 30, 2008 3:36:17 PM PST
The American Civil Liberties Union has moved to join a lawsuit against Newark. It was filed by a city police officer suspended after posting anonymous comments critical of his superiors on a Web site.

In a federal lawsuit filed last month, Officer Louis Wohltman alleges his rights to free speech and privacy were violated when Newark police department personnel obtained his identity from an Internet service provider and later suspended him.

Named in the suit are Anthony Ambrose and Garry F. McCarthy, the former and current police directors; Deputy Chief Kurt R. Ebler; Capt. Richard Cuccolo and 10 unidentified members of the police department.

"Because Director McCarthy was not the police director at the time of the incident, coupled with the fact that it is pending litigation, we are going to refrain from comment at this time," Det. Todd McClendon, a Newark police spokesman, said Wednesday.

McCarthy became police director in Sept. 2006. Wohltman posted the comments on the site in Feb. 2006, when Ambrose was director. According to the lawsuit, the comments were "highly critical of the Newark Police Department and of several of the individual defendants" and alleged incidents of corruption and incompetence.

One post featured an image of Ambrose with a clown's nose and wig superimposed on his face.

Subsequently, members of the police department served subpoenas on the Web site and on Internet service providers to identify the poster of the messages, the lawsuit alleges.

The suit claims that as a result of the postings, Wohltman became the subject of formal disciplinary proceedings that led to a hearing last August and, ultimately, a nine-month suspension.

The lawsuit seeks damages as well as the reinstatement of Wohltman to his position as a patrolman.

"Public employees have the right to speak openly about matters of public concern, and the right to do so anonymously on the Web, if they choose," ACLU-NJ legal director Ed Barocas said in a statement. "In this case, the Newark Police Department violated both of those rights."

Frank L. Corrado, an attorney representing Wohltman, did not immediately return a telephone message Wednesday.

The lawsuit is the second involving the Newark Police Department to make headlines in recent days. Last week an editor of a Brazilian newspaper claimed in a lawsuit that police arrested him in an effort to try and prevent him from publishing photographs from a crime scene last September.

In November, Attorney General Anne Milgram found that Deputy Chief Samuel DeMaio should be disciplined for questioning the editor, Robert Lima, and a photographer about their immigration status.

Milgram last summer ordered police to notify federal authorities when they believe a suspect is in the country illegally. The directive covered only suspects arrested for indictable offenses or drunken driving.