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Change LA law to bolster govt accountability

Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry may feel pressured into pursuing legal action against opioid manufacturers. But he has no reason to continue defending an unconstitutional law, nor should Louisiana legislators keep it as is on the books.

Recent federal court decisions have taken a dim view of the state’s R.S. 14:122, which begins “Public intimidation is the use of violence, force, or threats upon any of the following persons, with the intent to influence his conduct in relation to his position, employment, or duty …  Public officer or public employee.” It has good intentions, to prevent discouraging such officials from carrying out their duties.

However, it goes overboard as its language can apply to citizens expressing their rights to hold public servants accountable for their actions. In two recent cases, federal courts have registered strong reservations about overbroad application regarding police behavior, refusing to side with government when it has issued citations utilizing this law.

In a case where a federal judge has struck down the arrest of someone under this statute, Landry has appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The district court ruled that the law could criminalize lawful behavior under the Constitution, even as it also would apply to actual threats outside the First Amendment’s protection.

Landry points to the necessity of the law in preventing the use of influence to gain preferential treatment. A related brief argues the act of trying to influence officials away from carrying out their duties, not the words themselves, is this issue at hand.

Yet surely defenders of it must realize that the law cannot silence the public’s right to give notice that they may dispute an official’s actions. Reminding them that their exercise of governmental power will face scrutiny helps ensure that officials do not abuse their powers. As written, officials can use the statute to intimidate citizens from bringing to light potential illegitimate behavior by government employees.

And government doesn’t need the law to protect public officials doing their jobs when faced with genuine threats of harm. Witness intimidation and resisting arrest statutes, among others, can do the trick.

When the Gov. John Bel Edwards Administration launched the opioid lawsuit, Landry may have felt it necessary to intervene in order to rein in pursuit of jackpot justice, directing legal efforts in a more productive direction. In this instance, he should not bother with backing up overly-sensitive law enforcement personnel.

Legislators can help clarify matters as well. If they want to maintain the law’s constitutionality, they should add a provision to it stating it does not apply to individuals asserting they intend to raise questions about the legitimacy of the act that could result in penalties levied against the official, even if those under investigation or arrest use excitable and bombastic language to do so.

Otherwise, lawmakers should dump it. We need not have laws that discourage citizens from reminding officials of accountability, which can stop government abuse before it happens.

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