The case involves Mary T. Jean, a Worcester political activist who maintained a Web site critical of former Worcester District Attorney John Conte. In October 2005, Paul Pechonis contacted Jean through her Web site. He said that on Sept. 29, eight armed State Police troopers arrested him in his home on a misdemeanor charge. After handcuffing him at his front door, the officers conducted a warrantless search of his entire house. A motion-activated "nanny cam" caught the incident on tape. Pechonis gave a copy of the tape to Jean, who posted it on her Web site.
After State Police officers learned of the posting, they wrote to Jean telling her that her posting of the tape was illegal. They gave her 48 hours to take it down or face prosecution. A month later, the police "clarified" the previous letter to demand that she take down only the audio portion of the recording.
Citing the First Amendment, Jean went to federal court seeking a TRO and an injunction against the police and the attorney general. The district court granted the TRO and, after a hearing, entered a preliminary injunction. The police appealed.
In today's decision, the 1st Circuit affirmed the district court, relying on Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), a case in which the Supreme Court found that the First Amendment protected the replaying of an intercepted cell phone conversation concerning a matter of unquestionable public concern, when, although the interception was unlawful, the possessor of the tape obtained it lawfully. That precedent controlled here, the circuit court said:
"We conclude that the government interests in preserving privacy and deterring illegal interceptions are less compelling in this case than in Bartnicki, and Jean’s circumstances are otherwise materially indistinguishable from those of the defendants in Bartnicki, whose publication of an illegally intercepted tape was protected by the First Amendment. Jean's publication of the recording on her website is thus entitled to the same First Amendment protection."