Are Missouri Police and Sheriffs Violating the First Amendment?

Everyone knows the famous phrase “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” However, it seems that some people have found a way around this: get rid of the stove.

There is a disturbing trend on social media where politicians and government agencies are blocking dissenters, and it raises an interesting constitutional question: is it a violation of the for government agents to suppress the opposition on their social media accounts?

This has recently come to a head in Missouri, where the Missouri Sheriff’s Association voted unanimously earlier this month to endorse the use of (IGWT) on patrol vehicles. Many Sheriff Departments, such as Greene County and Stone County, already had the phrase on their vehicles prior to the MSA’s decision.

As the different departments post pictures of their vehicles to their respective social media accounts, they draw some serious criticism in the comments section.

When Terry Day saw that the Lake Ozark Police Department had posted a photo of their new decals online (the photo has since been removed), she expressed her dissent. “I made several comments about the importance of the establishment clause and how this went against that,” she told me over email, “Not once did I put down religion, swear, or attack anyone for their views. I asked whose God they trusted, as there are many. I asked the people posting if they would feel differently about this decal if it was [sic] about another religion; say Islam, Buddhism, Wiccan, etc. I received many rude comments, such as, ‘don’t like it, move to another country.’” The next day, she says she found that not only had she been blocked by the LOPD and her comments deleted, but anyone who agreed with her had also been blocked and deleted.

According to Lacy Bailey, who spoke with me via Facebook, she had a similar experience with two Sheriff’s departments. When the Jasper County Missouri Sheriff’s Department posted a photo similar photo to the one that the LOPD posted, Bailey expressed her disagreement with the decision only to find that her comments were suppressed as well. At the time of writing this, the photo has been removed from the Jasper County Department’s Facebook page.

While some departments have been deleting posts entirely, the Stone County Sheriff’s Office seems to be just deleting anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

Despite the fact that they replied to Bailey’s criticism, Stone County ended up blocking her and removing all her comments. What was Bailey’s offensive remark? Asking who paid for the IGWT stickers. In addition, much like in Terry Day’s case, any comments supporting Bailey were also deleted.

Reports of such actions are common on Facebook pages such as In God We Do Not All Trust – MO.

I spoke by phone with Ryan Lanman, who went to the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office to confront Sheriff Darren White in person with his concerns over the use of IGWT on county vehicles.

When Lanman confronted Sheriff White with his concerns, White simply dismissed him, telling Lanman, “I find it sad that a 27 year old has nothing else to be concerned about.”

Lanman, who served four years in the Marine Corps, told me that he wasn’t so much concerned about the IGWT stickers as much as he was concerned about protecting people’s rights to First Amendment speech. “He told me I wasn’t protecting anyone’s rights,” Lanman told me, adding that the Sheriff told him, “If you are so offended by the decals, then you should apply to a different school.”

Lanman attends Northwest Missouri State in Nodaway County.

Interestingly, the Nodaway County Sheriff’s official website has a picture of their IGWT decals with the caption, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” No hidden agenda there.

At first, it is easy to assume that these government agencies have the right to moderate the comments sections of their Facebook pages – certainly they have the right to remove foul language and lewd pictures. But what about run-of-the-mill dissent to their decisions? That issue isn’t so black-and-white.

In a case involving an Ohio Sheriff’s Department posting Christian imagery on their Facebook, Freedom From Religion attorney Rebecca Market had this to say:

“You have an official website, and now you have an official Facebook page and an official Twitter account. It’s an official sheriff’s department publication, and it needs to comport with the establishment clause.”

If the Facebook pages must comport with the establishment clause – i.e. the First Amendment – it follows logically that it must comport with the entire First Amendment, which also includes the right to redress grievances and protects freedom of speech from government .

By deleting dissenting comments and posts that receive negative attention, these Sheriff’s Departments are making sure that their opposition is excluded from one of the planet’s most common forms of communication. It is the online equivalent of barring protests in public spaces (all the government pages are public), or banning certain speakers during city council meetings because they disagree with a proposed law.

As yet, there hasn’t been a clear-cut case involving this issue. However, if these government officials keep up their censorship, there may soon be one. After all, if you can’t stand the heat…

 

*********************************************UPDATE****************************************************

It appears that there is a law suit from the US District Court in Hawaii concerning this issue. In Hawaii Defense Foundation, et al. vs. City and County of Honolulu et al (2012)The city and county of Honolulu were sued for deleting a series of posts from one of their citizens. The law suit was eventually dropped after the defendants agreed to change their policies and procedures regarding comments. (via Texas Municipal League)

As an aside, I first ran across this story when a friend of mine referred me to Cop Block.  Since many cases we follow here at The Original Motto Project involve , I want to caution our readers that Cop Block is notorious for not doing their homework, taking the law out of context, or fabricating events. In other words: do your homework and take anything on that site with a very large grain of salt.

 

Thomas Essel

Thomas Essel is an outspoken secular activist and serves as Assistant Director for The Original Motto Project. Thomas also writes for the Patheos Atheist blog Danthropology and his work has appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact Thomas at: Thomas@originalmotto.us