Sheriff’s Department Facebook Lawsuits

We live in an era where America’s constitutional underpinnings are being tested daily – open racism from government officials, open promotion of religion by government officials, government officials using their office to lobby for political candidates, government officials profiting from their positions, a government controlled by and acting in the interests of corporations at the expense of people, continued disparities in arrest and sentencing of non-white citizens, unnecessary violence against citizens that is disproportionately committed on non-white citizens, and rampant attempted censorship by government officials.

What will stop America from completing its transformation into an autocratic state controlled by wealthy individuals acting in their own interests or the interest of their irrational, race-based agendas?

If anything, it will be the nation’s courts, unyieldingly enforcing the unchanging law as written in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

One battlefront that may seem insignificant to some, but that has tremendous implications for our efforts to right the ship, stay the course, and preserve our civil rights is the lawsuits that are being filed nationwide to stop Sheriff’s departments and other law enforcement agencies from 1) silencing their critics on social media and 2) promoting their religion on social media.

We often talk about the slow erosion of our Fourth Amendment rights over time – the First Amendment is also under attack nationwide, and it cannot survive unless the nation’s citizens step up and fight for it.

Sheriff’s Department Facebook Lawsuits

Government agencies, including law enforcement departments, cannot block citizens from their social media pages or delete citizens’ posts to silence criticism. If someone is complaining and it is not true, respond professionally and explain why it is not true. If someone is complaining and it is true, address the problem and either make changes or explain why you do not need to make changes.

If your answer to criticism is to block citizens and attempt to silence them, you are violating the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause and you are asking for an 18 USC Section 1983 lawsuit along with a motion for you to pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and costs…

Bell County, Texas Sheriff’s Department

The Bell County Sheriff’s Department decided to block users and delete comments when the public complained on their Facebook page about a shooting death in Harker’s Heights:

Four days after the Texas Rangers released details describing the shooting death of a Harker Heights resident, including dash-cam video, the Bell County Sheriff’s Department began a virtual crowd-control on its Facebook page to silence critics.

No negativity allowed online… The article is behind a paywall, unfortunately.

Hunt County, Texas Sheriff’s Office

Hunt County woman was charged with interfering with a child custody order and assaulting an officer after she was allegedly assaulted by the police:

Three-and-a-half years ago,a Hunt County deputy and local police officer arrived at her parents’ home with representatives from Child Protective Services and an order to take custody of Robinson’s 18-month-old son. When she asked to see the order, the officers refused. That’s when things escalated. In a home surveillance video widely circulated online at the time, Robinson – eight months pregnant – can be seen cowering in the corner of her kitchen as a Hunt County deputy and a Quinlan police officer force her to the floor and handcuff her. She was charged with assaulting an officer.

The charges against her were dismissed – she was accused of violating a court order that she had never been served with and that the deputies refused to allow her to read before assaulting her… Then the sheriff’s office blocked her from commenting on its Facebook page:

After criticizing the Hunt County Sheriff’s Office on its Facebook page, Deanna Robinson found herself blocked from commenting or liking its posts. Nearly two years later, her free speech case against the small law enforcement agency is reaching the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Suppression of critical speech is not limited to Texas, though.

Adams County, Iowa Sheriff’s Office

An Iowa man went on a rant on his own Facebook page against the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, calling one of the deputies a “f—ing pile of sh–” and a “STUPID sum b—-,” after witnessing what appeared to be an incident of unnecessary brutality on the roadside:

The episode began last summer, when Jon Goldsmith witnessed a traffic stop and vehicle search. According to his lawsuit, the deputies conducting the traffic stop acted unprofessionally and had little probable cause to execute a search. His lawsuit also alleged that he saw the officer tackle and arrest a man who was acting normally.

When the Sheriff’s Office saw his post, in an obvious attempt to demonstrate how even-keeled they are, they arrested him for “harassment.” The criminal charges were dropped, and the county settled his lawsuit with a small damages award and an injunction prohibiting the sheriff’s department from arresting anyone for criticizing them:

In settling the lawsuit, Goldsmith will receive $10,000, the sheriff’s office will pay the ACLU’s legal fees for representing Goldsmith, and the office will need to conduct ACLU-approved free speech training for officers and adopt a social media policy.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa also issued an injunction against the sheriff’s department, barring them from arresting anyone for criticizing the department.

San Diego, California Sheriff’s Department

San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore deleted his department’s Facebook page completely after he was sued for deleting Facebook comments and banning a Facebook user for posting criticism:

“Sheriff Gore was the person in charge of murders that took place at Ruby Ridge when he was in the FBI. When asked about his involvement in that incident, he pled the 5th. And I wonder, should this guy be the top cop in my town? So I went on the Facebook page; I’ve been raising awareness by posts and emails; I have large community that follows me. So I decided to go on his page, the one I pay for, San Diego facebook page. I questioned his ability to run the department. I was banned and I called [the department], and the lady hung up on me. I told them I would sue. I sent them a letter. They ignored it. So I filed a lawsuit. They chose this path that we’re on right now. I gave them ample opportunity to unban me.”

The Facebook comment that prompted Gore to block him:

“Sheriff Gore: Do you plead the 5th about your involvement in the MURDER of an unarmed woman who was holding her baby? REMEMBER RUBY RIDGE.”

Worth County, Georgia Sheriff’s Office

If we can’t delete users who criticize us, we just won’t have social media profiles at all!

Apparently, this is the solution for more than one sheriff’s department – Worth County Sheriff’s Office also deleted their Facebook page after receiving a demand letter from the ACLU explaining why deleting comments and blocking users violates the First Amendment:

“We told them that this is a clear First Amendment violation that you can’t pick and choose who gets to say what they want on their Facebook page,” [the ACLU] said. “That’s like having a town hall and saying, ‘If you say anything mean about us, then we’re going to kick you out forever.”

[Sheriff] Sapp said he also decided to take down the page until he could get a more clear picture as to how the laws worked in relation to social media.

Sacramento County, California Sheriff

The Sacramento County Sheriff was sued by the ACLU after allegedly deleting comments and blocking Black Lives Matter Sacramento from posting comments on their Facebook page:

The suit, filed Wednesday in federal district court in Sacramento, alleges Jones deleted comments from BLM leaders Tanya Faison and Sonia Lewis on Oct. 31 and Nov. 5 when they responded to a post on the sheriff’s page expressing his opinion on the ongoing debate over the level of oversight the Office of the Inspector General should have over Jones’ department.

The Nov. 5 post included screenshots from the Black Lives Matter Facebook page, saying the group wants to “abolish the police” and a post Faison shared on her page, saying “all cops are bastards.”

Lewis and Clark County, Montana Sheriff’s Office

Montana sheriff is being sued for… deleting comments and banning Facebook users:

Lewis and Clark County residents Chase Berg and Deanna Anderson allege in the suit that the actions of the sheriff’s office have violated their First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights.

The Independent Record reports that the lawsuit was filed this past week in district court in Helena.

Berg and Anderson are asking the sheriff’s office to restore deleted posts, to not allow anyone to be banned for political speech or remove protected speech and to allow banned users to use the Facebook page again.

Lexington County, South Carolina Sheriff’s Department

A Lexington County deputy, who was denied medical insurance after being hit by a suspect’s car, was blocked from the Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page after criticizing the department:

In October 2017, the county sheriff’s department posted information about a $500 sign-on bonus to attract new deputies. Eddie Richardson posted a comment:

“That’s a great idea. But it would be a good idea to instead of doing bonuses, put the money into a fund to take care of wounded officers,” he wrote.

Richardson’s comment was deleted and he was blocked from commenting, according to the complaint.

Later, Amanda Richardson made a comment, saying the department should not block users from its page, especially her husband. Her comment was also deleted and she was blocked from the page, the lawsuit says.

Sheriff’s Departments Promoting Religion on Facebook

County sheriffs don’t just have trouble with the First Amendment when it comes to suppressing speech they do not like. They also are having trouble understanding why a government agency should not promote religion on their social media profiles.

Like shutting down dissenting opinions, promotion of a specific religion by a sheriff also violates the First Amendment and can lead to civil rights lawsuits to force sheriff’s departments to follow the law.

Bradley County, Tennessee Sheriff’s Department

A Tennessee sheriff paid $41,000 in a 2016 settlement as part of a lawsuit after the sheriff posted a “He is risen” meme on the department’s Facebook page and then deleted all negative comments on the post:

The sheriff’s department has agreed it won’t use its Facebook page to promote religion, while Watson will have a separate, personal Facebook page that makes clear the expressed opinions are his own…

Green County, Missouri Sheriff’s Department

Three years after the Bradley County Sheriff cost his county $41,000 for ignoring the First Amendment, the Sheriff in Green County, Missouri, defiantly followed in his footsteps with an Easter meme featuring a cross, a sunrise, and the message “He has risen!”

The American Humanist Association took notice, saying that the Greene County Police Department should, “Consider what those adhering to Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Wiccan, and Humanist beliefs must think when they see their sheriff using his office to promote Christianity.”

The Sheriff responded defiantly, tweeting “We will not be removing this post. Ever.”

Covington County, Alabama Sheriff

An Alabama sheriff who reportedly regularly promotes Christianity on the department’s Facebook page received a letter from a group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation:

A Covington County resident had informed FFRF that the official Covington County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page regularly promotes Christianity. On June 24, Covington County Sheriff Blake Turman received a letter from FFRF outlining why the religious promotion on this Facebook page violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — as well as the religious freedom and right of conscience of all Covington County residents.

His response? He claimed that the page, titled “Covington County Sheriffs Department” and which regularly provides updates from the Sheriff’s Department, is his own personal blog and therefore he can write what he wants on it. On the other hand, he says his Facebook posts do not violate the Establishment Clause because “separation of church and state was never even penned in the Constitution.”

Cherokee County, Georgia Sheriff

The FFRF also sent a letter to Cherokee County, Georgia, Sheriff Frank Reynolds, informing him that his department’s Facebooks posts featuring Christian imagery and bible verses violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The Sheriff’s response?

He will “make no apologies for my faith and the faith of our community,” and the Constitution protects personal freedom of expression.

I shouldn’t need to point this out, but 1) no one is asking him to apologize for his faith or change it, 2) I guarantee there are people in his community who are not Christians and who are alienated and offended by his Facebook posts, and 3) yes, the Constitution protects personal freedom of expression.

The Constitution protects personal freedom of expression from the government. It does not protect government freedom of expression from the people. It even goes further and prohibits government expression of religious beliefs.

Horry County, South Carolina Sheriff’s Office

The Horry County Sheriff’s Office (a separate agency from the Horry County Police Department) has not been sued yet (as far as I know) for promoting religion on their Facebook page, but they are promoting Christianity in the same way that the departments above have been, including:

Why is Separation of Church and State Important?

I get it. You are a Christian, God calls us to share the good news with every person, and Jesus is the most important thing in your life.

I’m not making fun. I am a Christian, God calls on me to share the good news with others, and Jesus is the most important thing in my life as well. But not as a government official or government agency. Why?

The ACLU has a statement about government promotion of religion that may help:

“Religious freedom is not only one of our most treasured liberties, but it is also a fundamental human right and a defining feature of our national character. Given this nation’s robust, longstanding commitment to freedom of religion and belief, it is no surprise that the United States is among the most religious and religiously diverse nations in the world. Indeed, religious liberty is alive and well in this country precisely because our government cannot tell us whether, when, where, or how to worship, and because our government cannot take sides on matters of faith.

Recognizing the importance of religious freedom, our founders set forth the Establishment Clause as the very first freedom enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S.”

No matter how many times you say it and regardless of whether you believe it, America is not a Christian nation. It is a purposefully secular government. It is purposefully secular because our fellow Americans have many faiths. The Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, people of other various faiths, and people of no faith at all who live in your community are also Americans who share your government.

The government does not belong to you. It belongs to every American and every member of your community. Government, in America, is not a vehicle for spreading a particular religion or enforcing the beliefs of a particular religion. It is a vehicle for providing necessary services to all citizens and enforcing the secular laws of our secular government.

More importantly, it is about history.

When the Founders drafted the Constitution and then added the Bill of Rights, they were well aware of what happens when a government claims its authority is from God and enforces one religion over any others. What happens when there is no separation of church and state?

Take a look at Saudi Arabia, Iran, or the Islamic State.

But, wait, that’s Muslims! Muslims are bad and Christians are good, right? Well, just as every Muslim does not share the beliefs of the founders of the Islamic State, every Christian does not share my beliefs or yours. Before America was founded, Christian governments brought us:

  • Burning at the stake and other forms of torture as governments enforced (or allowed the Church to enforce) religious-based laws;
  • Persecution of non-Christians (heretics); and
  • Persecution of Christians who did not agree with their government’s form of Christianity (also heretics).

The motivation for many of the settlers who first arrived on the Native American’s shores was to escape religious persecution. Not Muslims or Hindus, but mostly Christians seeking to escape persecution by other Christians…

No government official’s job description anywhere in the United States = spread the gospel. That doesn’t mean you can’t spread the gospel. It just means you cannot spread the gospel as a representative of your secular government.

It’s pretty simple.

  • The First Amendment protects your right to be a Christian. It protects you from the government forcing any other religion on you.
  • If you are a government official, you are the government. The First Amendment protects every citizen, regardless of their faith, from you forcing your religion on them.
  • Facebook will let you have a personal profile. You probably have one already. That is where you spread the gospel and share religious posts with your Facebook friends.
  • Use the government Facebook page for government business or announcements. It’s not for your personal business or religious announcements.

Follow the law. Respect the Constitution.

Criminal Defense and First Amendment Lawyer in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, SC

Lacey Thompson is a SC criminal defense and First Amendment lawyer representing clients in Richland County, Lexington County, Horry County, and the surrounding areas.

If your First Amendment rights have been violated, or if you have been charged with a crime in SC, call now at 843-444-6122 or contact us online to talk with a Myrtle Beach criminal defense attorney today.

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