On August 15, 2015 I was checking out the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office’s (BCSO) Facebook page and saw that they had posted a story by WTRF-TV7 that I had also covered here at CopBlock.org and decided to share the link to my story in the comment section of their post (btw, the post is about overcrowding – again, see here). I left a simple comment (with the link) that said, “Enjoy the read.” Shortly after posting my comment, I noticed it had been deleted from the BCSO page and that I was banned from commenting or posting. There was no profanity in my comments, no threats of violence, nothing of a sexual nature, or anything else that would have been a violation of Facebook Community Standards.
I knew that what their admins had done was not legal. When a government agency elects to put up an official page on Facebook, it falls under the same legal constraints as any other official government website. In their Facebook page, there was no posting policy stating what the department prohibited from the page. Just because a government agency disagrees with a statement, picture, video, or anything else; barring it being illegal, they can not censor your posts.
You see, there’s this little document that some of you may have heard of called the Bill of Rights. In that Bill of Rights is the First Amendment, and it clearly states:
- First Amendment – Religion and Expression. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I was more than a little annoyed that I had been censored by their admins. Had I left a comment that contained a threat, obscenity, lewd pictures, or had just flat-out written an obscenity laced rant that had served no purpose, I would have expected to see such comment deleted with a report to Facebook for violation of their community standards. In fact, I would have deserved it. I have commented on their page numerous times when I disagree with something they have done. I have commented my disapproval of using tax dollars to go out and confiscate a plant, or when they set up stings to bust prostitutes and their Johns. They may have disagreed with my stance, but I never crossed the line as far as common decency.
I let it go for a few days while I did some research on case-law concerning other citizens being banned from government Facebook pages. In my research, I came across a case out of Hawaii. The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii on August 21, 2012. The parties to the suit were: Hawaii Defense Foundation, et al. vs. City and County of Honolulu et al. with case number CV12 00469.
The outcome of the case resulted in a monetary award of over $32,000 for legal fees. Hawaii Defense Foundation was not seeking any monetary rewards for punitive damages. They were only seeking to legally hold the department accountable for their violation of civil rights under the color of law. The big outcome for the case was that the department had to come up with a posting policy for their Facebook page and in turn became a landmark case regarding government censorship on social media.
With my research complete, I drafted a letter and a FOIA request on August 26, 2015 and delivered both to the Sheriff’s Office dispatcher to be delivered to Chief Deputy James G. Zusak. I addressed these to him, because he was the one in the past that had taken care of a FOIA request for me and I had a very positive response from him. Both the letter and the FOIA can be viewed at the bottom of this story.
For what I was requesting, I felt 5 business days was more than enough time for a response as I was not requesting anything that required them to dig through thousands of records to obtain the needed information. On the morning of August 31, I received a telephone call from Chief Zusak regarding my letter and request. He informed me that the department had consulted with legal counsel regarding the matter and that I was unbanned from the Facebook page and that I was free to repost my comment that had been deleted. He did inform me that they would be disabling comments on the page in the near future while they drafted a posting policy for the page that had to be approved by legal. I thanked him for his time and attention to the matter and we ended the call.
By taking a proactive approach to addressing something a government agency did that was, essentially, illegal. I was able to effect some change and possibly educated some officials that may or may not have been aware of what was taking place. I was respectful in my correspondence when I laid out the facts and included supporting information in what was – basically a petition to a government agency for – a redress of grievances. I was prepared to take the issue to litigation had it been necessary, the complaint was already being drafted in case my request had been denied or ignored, but the taxpayers got a break this time. The police were not going to foot the bill for a legal case that I believe I would have (eventually) won.
I will admit that I am not really surprised that Chief Zusak addressed the issue as quickly as he did. As I mentioned before, I have dealt with him in the past for another FOIA request and he was more than happy to help me with the information that I requested. So many times we have seen video on YouTube of people submitting FOIA requests being hassled and made to jump through hoops to get the information requested. Even though I do not agree with everything that my local law enforcement agencies do, I have always had positive experience when dealing with the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office. I believe that Chief Zusak is one of the good ones in law enforcement and that he believes in serving the public to the best of his abilities. I only wish that more officers handled their business in the professional manner that I have seen him do time and again. For that, I thank him for his maintaining transparency of his department and his professionalism when addressing an issue when it arises.
When you have an issue with your local government, don’t be afraid to stand up and say something. Just remember that the response you receive may depend on how you present yourself when speaking up. Do your research and present as much supporting material as you feel is needed when presenting your case. Do it in a professional manner and avoid being confrontational. Your first line of defense when protecting your rights is yourself.