Sometimes organizations don’t know when to back off.

They do something outrageous, and then instead of finding a graceful way out, they double down and make the situation even worse.

That’s just what the Maui Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has done by issuing a subpoena to obtain the identities of people who commented on a story (and video) about an officer allegedly assaulting the publisher of a weekly newspaper.

We wrote about the initial incident in April. It seemed then that in a universe that made sense, the department would have conducted an internal investigation of its own officer to determine whether discipline, or even criminal charges, was deserved after he hit the publisher and told him, “You cannot film me without my consent, you cannot use my image without my consent.” Maybe it would even issue an apology.

Instead, it’s going after the newspaper to get it to reveal the Internet Protocol addresses of members of the public who commented on the story.

The Maui prosecutor has a larger responsibility than carrying water for a single cop or a police department. Whenever a case involves something as serious as chilling the free speech rights of Americans, a prosecutor needs to proceed with great caution.

Sure, I can understand why police might not like reading some of the comments on the story. But based on the subpoena, they’re the kind of thing that you might hear in a bar or coffee shop when people are discussing a troubling episode with a police officer.

They include:

the MPD,, the ONLY reason I own a LARGE CALIBRE, high powered rifle.

who needs criminals with this bunch of dog eating public menances running around.

Johnson needs a bullet when he walks out his door.

and:

he’s a crooked cop and should be fired or fired upon ..lol..!!

Ugly. Yes. Disturbing. Sure. Are the words the best way to get the police department to change for the better? No.

But do those words rise to the level where the courts should step in and force the newspaper to reveal the IP addresses of the people who made them? Do they constitute “terroristic threatening,” which is the alleged crime being investigated?

I think it’s time for cooler heads to prevail. The comments are not specific threats, nor do they incite others to act in the heat of the moment. (Note to the police and prosecutors: Many people don’t like you and wish you the worst. That’s legal, and not worth your time.)

This may seem like an abstract issue, something of interest only to journalists. But it’s much more important than that. It affects the rights of all Americans.

The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies has issued a resolution supporting the Maui newspaper’s attempts to quash the subpoena, calling on the Maui prosecutor to withdraw it.

It cited the need for a free press to be able to report on incidents of police abuse, the right of the people to comment on matters of public concern and the chilling effect on free speech and journalism if a newspaper cannot protect its anonymous commenters and sources.

Maui Time Publisher Tommy Russo is due to appear in court Wednesday morning. Let’s hope, for all of us in Hawaii, that the prosecutor decides to do the right thing.

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