Criminal defense lawyer and blogger Rick Horowitz said something offensive on his blog, which he says, “in retrospect, I even wish I had not said.” This happens all the time. Provocativeness is to blogging as exhaling is to breathing, and the line between provocative and offensive is often quite blurry. Sometimes we all say a little more than we wish we would have.

The difference is that a cop read what Horowitz wrote, got mad, and decided to get even.

Offending the cops

Now, what Horowitz wrote was really offensive. He has gone back and changed it on his blog, but you can still find it in Google’s cache. I am linking to the original post and quoting his words here not because I want to get Horowitz in more trouble, but because I think the words he used are important to understand what happened. Here is what he deleted:

If it’s not about what’s just, or right, then we need another fucking revolution. Let the blood flow through the streets. Let the blood run in the police stations.

And so on. If you read the entire post, you will see that Horowitz was clearly writing in a moment of passion. We all say things we don’t mean when our blood is up. We make death threats we do not intend to carry out. We tell people we love that we hate them (or as my 3-year-old is wont to say, “I’m not your friend anymore!”). We explore in great detail the ways we would like to ruin someone’s life. But we do not intend to take action, even in that moment. We just need to blow off some steam.

I won’t lie: I did intend to be offensive. What I had experienced — which resulted in yesterday’s post — was offensive. What happens far too often in our courtrooms is offensive. I was very offended, and made offensive statements about what offended me.

Horowitz’s blog post was, clearly, his relief valve for that day’s frustration. On reflection, he wished he had not said it. He clearly did not actually want people to start killing cops. He did mean to be offensive, obviously, as he clarified in a follow-up post describing what happened the next day:

[A]s despicable as I find the behavior of a lot of police officers, I will fight them in two places only: the courts, and the courtroom of public opinion.

Unfortunately, deputies at the courthouse took Horowitz quite literally. The day after his offensive post, he was searched, repeatedly, even though he had never been searched before.

They opened my bag, and then opened everything inside my bag, on the pretense that they were looking for “something metal” that showed up in the x-ray machine.

The deputies did not beat him up, but Horowitz and several other lawyers believe they may have planned to:

I suspect that’s just the start. It will not surprise me if something happens to me for what I’ve written. At least a few attorneys — including me — think that there was a plan in place this morning to set up a situation where I could be given a beatdown, which almost certainly would have been followed by criminal charges against me for “resisting arrest,” or “assaulting an officer,” or something similar to that. Because that happens to more people than you could possibly imagine, more often than you would believe. And, as I said, there is reason to believe they were trying to set it up — reason enough that another attorney decided to stick around “just in case.”

Blogging for justice

Horowitz’s experience is a reminder that what you put on your blog can have real consequences. People who disagree with you will read what you put online, especially if you have something interesting to say. I have been a strong opponent of abusive debt collectors on my consumer rights blog, and I know the debt collection industry and their lawyers are reading. Posts from my blog have even been cited in court filings.

I have never been harassed by deputies, but I have definitely been harassed by debt collectors as a result of what I have written. I am comletely okay with that, because someone needs to get accurate information about those issues out to the public, and to hold debt collectors to account for their actions.

Because a blog can be a powerful weapon in the fight for justice. The deputies who harassed Horowitz obviously wanted to punish and silence him. Like most criminal defense lawyers, that was never going to work, but they tried. If they try again, we will hear about it, either from Horowitz or his colleagues. If he winds up beaten or jailed, we will find out, and there will be a line of evidence leading straight to the perpetrators.

The trick is that bloggers are just as likely to suffer for what they write as journalists with a byline in a major publication. Perhaps more likely, because a “little guy” blogger like Horowitz does not carry the implicit threat of a front-page story in a national publication. Only he should, because his story took less than 24 hours to become a national one, even if it is not on the front page of the New York Times.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you are only writing for yourself on your blog. All it takes is a single link in the right place to thrust your small blog into the national spotlight. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. Be careful what you write, because it can have a huge impact.

Horowitz’s first post had a huge impact — although he probably wished it didn’t. The more important post is his second, though, where he calls out the deputies for their deplorable behavior. He stood by what he wrote and kept writing when others would have been cowed into silence. I admire him for that, because it takes guts to keep putting yourself out there under threat. If you aren’t willing to do that, though, do not start a blog. What would be the point?

More on Horowitz’s experience:

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/3517189608/)