Subpoena outs blogger in church row

An anonymous blogger has been outed by law enforcement in Jacksonville after angering a local pastor with close ties to the Sheriff Department.  A series of false accusations about stalking and mail fraud allowed Detective Robert Hinson, who also works on the security detail for Rev. Mac Brunson to force Google to reveal Thomas Rich’s name.  Rich has been expelled by the First Baptist Church and publicly criticized, but Rich wants to know how Hinson got the subpoena in the first place:

A blogger critical of First Baptist Church Pastor Mac Brunson wants to know why his Web site was investigated by a police detective who is also a member of the minister’s security detail.

Thomas A. Rich also wants the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to explain what suspected crimes led Detective Robert Hinson to open the probe into his once-anonymous Web site.

Rich also wants to know why Hinson revealed his name to the church despite finding no wrongdoing. Hinson obtained a subpoena from the State Attorney’s Office requiring Google Inc. to reveal the author of the blog.

Rich’s unmasking led to an eventual trespass warning banning the longtime member and his wife from First Baptist, despite the fact that Brunson and a top church administrator conceded the blog never threatened violence.

In fact, Rich used his blog to question a number of practices in the church, among them the pastor’s large salary ($300,000), his wife’s sinecure for additional salary, and accepting a land grant as a personal gift from members of the congregation.  Rich kept himself anonymous in order to protect himself and his wife from retaliation.  While people can debate whether that was a good choice, no one can argue now that he was being paranoid.  The church has not only expelled his family, they have a trespass order against Rich and his wife, and they’ve published a letter to the congregation informing them of Rich’s “sins”.

The Jacksonville Sheriff Department insists that Hinson did nothing wrong, despite finding no evidence of any wrongdoing.  Rich never threatened anyone on the blog, but Hinson said that the anonymous criticism and certain vague and anonymous allegations — for which the JSO has no evidence or documentation now — warranted an investigation, including a subpoena to force Google to reveal his identity. The investigation found no wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of Rich, but then again, it looks like the point was to out Rich and humiliate him as a punishment for daring to criticize Brunson.

Let’s accept for a moment that Brunson’s and Hinson’s allegations were true.  If so, the case should not have been handled by a detective with the very large conflict of interest that Hinson had in this case.  He’s moonlighting for Brunson; what’s he doing conducting an investigation into Brunson’s critics? It looks a lot less like a legitimate verification of security than it does a way for Brunson to co-opt law enforcement in order to protect what looks like a very sweet deal at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville.

Brunson called Rich a “sociopath” for criticizing him, but the scary one in this scenario is the minister who can apparently call on the JSO to act as his hatchet men to silence criticism.  The people of Jacksonville might want to check out their Sheriff Department and determine exactly whom and what they serve — the people of Jacksonville and justice, or a rich pastor who can’t afford criticism.

Update: Unfortunately in this day and age, churches do have a legitimate concern about security, so I don’t fault First Baptist for having a security detail.  Bloggers writing criticisms about church practices aren’t a legitimate security concern, though, and they’re certainly not a legitimate concern for law enforcement.