Hacker Streams Porn Into Fla. Mask Law Hearing

By Carolina Bolado
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Law360 (July 10, 2020, 6:51 PM EDT) -- A Florida judge on Friday upheld a new face mask ordinance in Leon County following a Zoom hearing that was interrupted by a hacker who streamed pornography to the participants before the judge was able to kick the intruder out.

Early in the hearing in a local Republican leader's challenge to the face mask ordinance, someone joined the videoconference meeting and displayed pornography for several minutes as Judge John Cooper scrambled to remove the caller. The incident marked the first such intrusion in a Tallahassee courtroom, according to Grant Slayden, the trial court administrator for the Second Judicial Circuit Court.

"I've heard it's happened in other jurisdictions, but this is our first experience with it," he said.

The incident is the latest in a string of security breaches on Zoom, the service that has become the go-to videoconference platform for businesses, government agencies, courts and individuals kept apart by the coronavirus pandemic.

After arguments and testimony from several witnesses, Judge Cooper denied the request for a preliminary injunction blocking the face mask ordinance, declaring the mandate constitutional and within the county commission's authority to implement during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As for Slayden and the rest of the court administration team members, they are already discussing how to reduce the risk of other unwanted interruptions in the future while also ensuring that the public and the media have access to the court hearings.

"How can we ensure that the public, and most importantly the media, have access that doesn't take away the integrity of the process?" Slayden said. "It's definitely a balancing act."

He suggested that for high-profile cases, like the challenge to the face mask ordinance, the court might move to a webinar setup where the litigants can register as participants and observers can log in but will not be able to participate with audio or video.

That process can be labor-intensive, so he said it would likely be done only in cases with high public interest. Because Tallahassee, as the state capital, is the venue for any challenges to state laws or state agency actions, it gets a number of high-profile cases and will be the site of any election-related litigation later this year, he said.

"We want to have a process in place certainly before the election in August," Slayden said, referring to an upcoming primary.

In the hearing, which continued long after the interruption, Leon County GOP Chairman Evan Power told the court that the county's face mask ordinance is vague and does not give business owners much direction with regard to when masks are required. Power, who owns a political consulting business, said it was also unclear as to whether someone could be arrested for not wearing a face mask and not complying with the ordinance.

Power filed the suit June 25, two days after the Leon County Commission approved an ordinance requiring face masks inside business establishments to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has been exploding in Florida in recent weeks.

Power's attorney Anthony Sabatini, who is also a member of the Florida House of Representatives, argued on Friday that the ordinance violates the right to privacy in the Florida Constitution and fails to narrowly tailor the requirement to the purpose of curbing the COVID-19 pandemic.

He also said the county's "expansive and heavy-handed approach" requires young people like college students to wear masks even though they are not at high risk from the virus and urged the judge to grant an injunction barring enforcement of the mask mandate.

But Judge Cooper pointed out that asymptomatic college students can be dangerous because they won't limit their interactions if they don't know they are sick.

Bryan Desloge, the chairman of the Leon County Board of Commissioners, said if the three local universities open in the fall for on-campus classes, between 65,000 and 70,000 students will descend on Tallahassee. He said the commissioners made their decision on the ordinance after speaking with not just health officials but also university presidents, who all advocated in favor of a mandatory mask rule.

"[Florida State University President John] Thrasher said 'optional is not something my students understand,'" Desloge told the court.

Drew Parker, who argued on behalf of Leon County, said county officials have the authority to take several actions — like the mask ordinance, which has a "real and substantial relationship to the public health crisis" — to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. He noted that the county had issued a stay-at-home order earlier this year that Power never challenged.  

Judge Cooper agreed that the mask ordinance is rationally related to combating the pandemic and said it is in the county's best interest to take steps like requiring masks in order to make reopening businesses and university campuses safer.

"It's about as uncontested as it can be among the science people," Judge Cooper said. "There's clearly a rational factual basis for doing something which will get more people to wear face masks in an environment where you have accelerating spread of an infectious disease, especially in a community where you have a lot of people in the 18-to-35-year-old age range."

Leon County is represented by Marion Drew Parker, Karen Asher-Cohen and Laura Dennis of Radey Law Firm and Chasity H. O'Steen of the Leon County Attorney's Office.

Power is represented by Anthony F. Sabatini of Sabatini Law Firm PA and Richard E. Coates of Coates Law Firm PL.

The case is Power v. Leon County, case number 2020-CA-001200, in the Second Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.

--Editing by Steven Edelstone.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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