By: David Noack
The general manager of a Florida weekly that maintained a hidden video camera in the employees’ bathroom will not be prosecuted. But his employees plan to sue.
THE FLORIDA STATE attorney’s office will not file criminal charges against a Florida newspaper manager for having a video camera in the employees’ bathroom, but a lawyer representing former employees is preparing to file a civil lawsuit.
Those are the latest developments at the Apalachiocola Times that made headlines in March when sheriff’s deputies seized a video camera concealed in the ceiling of the paper’s unisex bathroom. The camouflaged camera was mounted directly over the toilet. Deputies also seized 29 videotape cassettes.
Immediately after the bathroom camera’s existence was revealed, five female employees walked off their jobs and the state attorney’s office annouces it would investigate the matter.
John Fred Lee, general manager of the 1,150-circulation newspaper located on the state’s norht west Guilf Coast, told authorities that the bathroom camera was part of a larger video surveillance network installed as an anti-theft measure. A video monitor and recorder in Lee’s office allowed him to watch and record the view from any of the cameras.
‘NO SPECIFIC STATUTE’
Assistant state attorney Ron Flury announced that no criminal charges will be filed against Lee because there was insufficient evidence and no specific statute dealing with the use of hidden video camera in bathrooms.
In an April 30 better to Franklin County Sheriff Bruce Varnes, Flury said witness statements “”indicated Mr. Lee would frequently work in his office with the door locked. Other witnesses stated that when a female would go into the restroom he would go into his office and exit his office after the female left the restroom.””
However, Flury continued, “”presently, there is not a Florida statute that specifically makes it a crime to utilize a hidden video camera in a restroom unbeknownst to the occupants. Nor is there a statute specifically adressing videotaping an individual under similar circumstances…The circumstancial evidence suggests Mr. Lee had the ability and opportunity to view individuals in the restroom without their consent or knowledge, however, this is not legally sufficient under Florida criminal law to contradict Mr. Lee’s assertion that he did not engage in such behavior.””
Lee did not respond to E&P’s telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment. But in remarks to reporter Susan LeGore of the News Herald, in Panama ?ity, Fla., Lee said: “”I’m fantastic. There’s no reason to be surprised by the decision. I think they did their job. I think that’s great…Those who know me aren’t surprised, nor should they be.””
PREPARING CIVIL LAWSUIT
Meanwhile, Pat Floyd, the attorney representing five-ex newspaper employees, siad the lack of any criminal action would not hamper his plans to file a civil rights lawsit sometimes later this month, most likely in federal district court in Tallahassee.
He said that while the ex-employees will be seeking damages in the civil lawsuit, they also want to send a message.
“They have decided they want to file a civil action to redress the wrongs they feel have been made to them and to demonstrate to others, both in the state of Florida and others, that this is something you cannot do and walk away,”” said FLoyd.
He said some of his clients are still employed by the newspaper, but will not actually return to work until Lee is no longer there.
While there was no law on the books dealing with video surveillance in a restroom when the police investigation began. Florida lawmakers have passed a bill, which is expected to be signed by the governor, making it a criminal offense.
Floyd said the measure that’s been approved by the lawmakers was one of the objectives of his clients. They were successful in getting the bill amended to include electronic surveillance.
The legislation creates criminal penalties for secretly videotaping, recording or filming people where they have an expectation privacy. The first two convictions under the bill are misdemeanors and punishable by up to one yer in jail. A third conviction would be third-digree felony, with a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.
?(This News Herald photo shows the video camera taken from the bathroom ceiling) [Photo & Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 16, 1998) [Caption]