In a ham-fisted attempt to attack a political opponent, Tarrant County’s top law enforcement official has admitted he engaged in official oppression when he misused county resources to investigate a Facebook page critical of his record.
Late Friday afternoon, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Texas Tribune ran stories fed to them by Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn attacking Bo French, a conservative candidate for state representative. But in their zeal to attack French, the Telegram and Tribune missed the scandal unfolding in front of their faces.
Waybourn is absurdly claiming that French committed a “scandalous crime” when he created a satirical Facebook page during Waybourn’s campaign for sheriff. But the real scandal is in Waybourn’s overreaction.
The “Thief Bill Waybourn” page criticized Waybourn for misappropriating city resources for his own personal gain when he was the chief of police for Dalworthington Gardens. Waybourn claims that by using his name in the profile, French violated Section 33.07 of the Penal Code, which bans online impersonation.
That law was passed in 2009 following a nationally publicized case in which a mother impersonated a teenage boy on MySpace and used the profile to taunt one of her daughter’s friends, ultimately resulting in the teen’s suicide.
Importantly, under the Online Impersonation statute, it is only a crime to use someone else’s name in a social media account “with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten” the person. It is not a crime to form a page calling a candidate for sheriff a “thief” because he misused city resources.
But Waybourn ignored the requirements of the law.
Working with Tarrant County Precinct 2 Constable David Woodruff, Waybourn obtained a search warrant and sent it to Facebook to unmask French as the creator of the page.
Now Waybourn has sent the case to the Texas Rangers and, along with French’s opponent, State Rep. Charlie Geren (R–Fort Worth) and the heads of several Tarrant County police unions, is calling for French to be prosecuted.
While the lapdog journalists at the Tribune and Telegram ran the story without taking a second to engage in any critical thinking about the allegations, their liberal readers don’t appear so ignorant of the law or eager to be used as political tools.
“I dislike the GOP, but come … on. Satire is protected speech,” wrote one reader. “Yeah, the ‘thief’ part was a dead giveaway of impersonation,” wrote another, sarcastically. “Have they sent the SWAT teams in to storm ‘The Onion’ offices yet?” asked a third.
Creating a mock profile to criticize a candidate for sheriff isn’t a crime. In fact, its protected under the First Amendment.
However, a crime was committed in this case … by Sheriff Waybourn.
Texas Penal Code Sec. 39.03, entitled Official Oppression, states that a public servant acting under color of his office commits an offense if he intentionally subjects another to search or seizure that he knows is unlawful or if he intentionally denies or impedes another in the exercise or enjoyment of any right, knowing his conduct is unlawful.
Waybourn knows the online impersonation statute requires “intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten” in order for there to be a crime. Yet he and Woodruff used that statute as a pretense to go after a Facebook page they didn’t like and they victimized French in the process.
Texas has a growing problem with politicians using the criminal justice system to attack their political opponents. It was done to Tom Delay, and then to Rick Perry, and to Wallace Hall, and Ken Paxton, and now Bo French.
The criminalization of free speech in Texas must end, and it should start with the prosecution of Sheriff Bill Waybourn for Official Oppression.