Wash. police open criminal probe of Internet cartoons

Friday, August 5, 2011

RENTON, Wash. — Renton Police Chief Kevin Milosevich sees nothing funny about a series of animated Internet videos that mock city police and other city employees. In fact, the police department has begun a cyberstalking investigation into the cartoons.

A search-warrant affidavit asks that Google turn over the real name of “Mrfuddlesticks,” the user name of the creator of nine videos that were posted on YouTube. Some news sources report the name as “Mr. Fiddlesticks.”

The affidavit says the videos focus on the new south King County jail, internal investigations, department morale and alleged sex acts involving police employees. The videos apparently were uploaded in mid-April, but removed later that month. It was not clear who removed them.

Seattle University law professor and legal ethics experts John Strait tells The Seattle Times he thinks Renton could face First Amendment issues if it pursues the case. He says the cyberstalking statute doesn’t apply.

ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig agrees in comments to KIRO-TV, Seattle, which initially aired the story of the mocking cartoonist on Aug. 3. The station published an updated report today with the police response.

KIRO provided a police statement that said, in part:

“Cyberstalking under RCW 9.61.260 is defined as:

“1. A person is guilty of cyberstalking if he or she, with intent to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person, makes an electronic communication to such other person or a third party:
“a. Using any lewd, lascivious, indecent, or obscene words, images, or language or suggesting the commission of any lewd or lascivious act. Cyberstalking is a misdemeanor crime unless some specific requirements are met which will result in a Class C Felony.

Chris Halsne, the KIRO-TV reporter who broke the story, asked attorney Venkat Balasubramani to review several of the satirical videos along with the court documents. Halsne described Balasubramani as an expert in cyberlaw and constitutional issues.

“The cyberstalking angle doesn’t pass the laugh test,” Balasubramani told the TV station. “It’s a serious stretch and I’d be surprised if somebody looked at it and realistically thought these acts actually fit the statute and we could make somebody criminally liable.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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