Hemphill County Saga Continues

Anyone that is active here at (TOMP) knows that the most obnoxious thorn in our sides is being blocked and deleted by government agencies (mostly Sheriff’s departments) on social media. Time after time, whenever someone comments to these agencies expressing their dissent to the addition of religious motto, the comments are removed and the agency in question triumphantly declares that they received overwhelming support. It is easy to have overwhelming support when your detractors are rendered silent, no?

Frustrated by this, TOMP National Director Robert Ray finally had enough. Ray sent in a Freedom of Information Act request to James Pearson after several of our members were blocked and deleted from the Facebook page. What we got back is interesting, to say the least.

Sheriff Pearson sent us a letter accusing us of “hate speech” for the original article I wrote about Pearson’s addition of the phrase “, ” on his county’s patrol vehicles. Pearson said in his letter that, “The least you [TOMP] could do is take 5 seconds and educate yourself about me or my community.” Furthermore, he said my article was “filled, from beginning to end, with pure unsubstantiated information.” I have already addressed that in another article, so I won’t do so again here. However, I encourage you to read the original article for yourself to determine if it contains any hate speech or unsubstantiated claims.

Robert Ray’s FOIA request was for “receipt or quote for cost to add decal/sticker.” According to the Sheriff, the cost was completely free. However, he did include the invoice for the actual purchase of the decals ($440) because “I [Pearson] know you will only submit another request after realizing your error in providing incorrect information.” How kind of him to do our work for us. Thank you, Sheriff Pearson.

Ray also requested a “list of banned users on the Facebook page of Hemphill County S.O.” and “Name of admins of the Hemphill County S.O. Facebook page.” Unsurprisingly, James Pearson is the only admin of the page. His reason for blocking and deleting comments is, to say the least, comical: “Certain persons were temporarily blocked from this page, by me, due to vulgar and, in some cases, what I perceived to be threatening comments made by the purported ‘nice persons’ that apparently support your views.”

According to Robert Ray, Sheriff Pearson only unblocked the users after receiving the FOIA request. Sheriff Pearson says that a document listing the blocked users does not exist. This is interesting because clearly the Facebook page is considered public information (why else would Pearson have responded to our request, given his obvious hostility towards us) yet he deleted the information without keeping official record of what he deleted. Did Sheriff Pearson destroy public information without following the proper procedures for doing so? My guess is that there is no set policy for this, but it is an interesting question to raise none-the-less.

As for the vulgar and threatening remarks made by our members, that is complete nonsense. I have, in my possession, 87 screenshots of comments made by TOMP members to the Hemphill County Sheriff’s Office. These users were “temporarily banned” and their comments deleted.

Among those censored was Indigo Shaw, who wrote, “This is wrong. This is a state vehicle promoting one religion over others. That should not be happening in a country whose citizens have the freedom to choose their religion, but are also guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution a .”

Cyndi Montgomery wrote, “Surely you are aware this is illegal. You would think law enforcement would care about following the law.” According to Montgomery’s post, that was her third attempt at writing the same message since the admin kept deleting the comment.

Craig McDonald shared an Americans United article about a similar incident in Alabama. The biblical verses were removed in that case as well. Apparently, just insinuating that the Sheriff might get sued over his actions was enough to warrant McDonald being blocked and deleted. I can understand why Sheriff Pearson deleted comments like McDonald’s – wouldn’t want people getting any crazy ideas now, would we?

I’ve been through all 87 of the screenshots, I cannot find a single comment that could possibly be misconstrued as vulgar or threatening (unless you count threatening legal action). But maybe I’m mistaken: a police officer claiming he was threatened and then making sure only his side of the story is told, surely that would never happen, right?

You can check out the FOIA response we got by clinking the link below. The letter is totally worth it, I promise.

Download (PDF, 58KB)

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