The question of whether or not protected free speech exists on social media platforms has come to the forefront with recent news out of San Diego.
The San Diego Sheriff’s department removed its Facebook page after a lawsuit, which can be read here, was filed on behalf of Dimitri Karras. Karras claims his civil rights were violated after a Facebook post he made that was critical of Sheriff Bill Gore was deleted. He was also banned from the page and denied the ability to post.
PINAC spoke with Karras about what led up to the lawsuit:
“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.
Karras’ Facebook comment, posted under the name, Jim Block, read: “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.” See screenshot below.
Criticism of Sheriff Gore has been ongoing for years. He was the FBI Agent in charge of an incident that led to an unnecessary assault on a family that resulted in multiple fatalities, including the death of an unarmed woman who was holding a baby at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
Other critics claim had Sheriff Gore been even somewhat competent when he worked for the FBI, the 911 attacks would not have happened. According to an LA Times article, all the information and intel needed to prevent 911 was available to Gore. But critics claim Gore was incapable of interpreting the information.
Gore has also been accused of embellishing his background with the FBI to boost his reputation and credentials as a Sheriff.
Dimitri Karras isn’t Gore’s first critic and probably won’t be his last.
When asked why he made the decision to sue the Sheriff’s Department for censoring his online speech, Karras said, “I spent eight years in the Marine Corps; I fought in Iraq. I wasn’t sitting in rear either. People have fought a lot for these rights, and paid in blood. It”s about time we stopped taking them for granted. ”
On the surface, the gravity of this case isn’t obvious. But considering that the site is paid for by tax-payers, it raises the question to the public of whether or not free speech is protected on police-owned social media platforms, especially because we here at PINAC have been very effective in social media campaigns against departments caught on video violating the rights of citizens – when the departments don’t delete our comments, which happens frequently.
The lawsuit alleges that despite receiving a letter from Karras, and being on notice of First Amendment violations, that the Sheriff’s Department continued to “cherry-pick comments on the Sheriff’s Department Facebook fan page in order to cultivate a self-serving political image. Defendants continue to punish those that fail to conform to the government message by banning them from further discussion.”
This raises the question whether government is obligated to respect the rights of speech on social media when the speech is critical of government or if it can simply delete comments that paint government in a bad light.
Karras’ Attorney, Scott McMillan, said the lawsuit he filed, “Will be very big. I see it as Government bringing up their skill set on free speech up to standards–current standards. They would [probably] know better to do something like this in front of their building, why do they think their digital public forum is any different?”
He also adds that there are broader implications, “It’s not just Facebook. Think Youtube and Twitter comments.” McMillan’s lawsuit on behalf of Karras alleges “Defendants, by denying Plaintiff’s political speech, caused Plaintiff to lose a critical opportunity to communicate on topics of importance to society.”
Karras told PINAC that social media could be used effectively by law enforcement agencies. He also said:
“People will take them more seriously if they’re not trying to censor comments critical of them. If they are trying to have a one-way conversation with the public, all they have to do is disallow all comments. But that’s not what they did. They were monitoring it so that positive comments were allowed, and negative blocked. If I go on there, and see all these positive comments, I’m going to think that’s the real public perception”
This isn’t Karras’ first time to stand up for his Constitutional Rights. In March of 2014, Karras found himself defending his 2nd amendment rights. ATF agents raided Karras’ gun parts business, attempting to coerce him in to giving up a list of his customers. They also took some of his product, 80% lower receivers–a variant receiver for AR-15s, that they say he wasn’t supposed to have. Karras refused to give up the list of customers and filed for a restraining against the ATF before his business was raided.
According to Karras, one reason he cares so much about these issues is that he fought in Iraq to defend his constitutional rights, and then came home and experienced these kinds of government overreaches.
“I was completely happy running my business, until they stole $200,000 of my product, pointed guns at women and children inside of my business. It opens a lot of eyes, and I will continue fighting them on even slight violations of the Constitution,” he said.
He has a hearing Thursday to see if he’ll get an injunction resulting from an ex parte application for a temporary injunction, so he can regain his right to post on the Sheriff’s page again in the future, if the sheriff’s department decides to relaunch the page. The sheriff’s department could also relaunch the page, but not allow anybody to comment. Currently, there is a San Diego Sheriff’s Department Facebook page, but it’s only part of a Wikipedia page that does not allow comments nor does the sheriff have access to post on it.
The Karras lawsuit is one to keep an eye on. Many government critics have experienced similar censorship when they post comments on tax-payer funded social media. A law enforcement agency that has nothing to hide can use social media effectively to serve the public. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department obviously believes it’s more important to not give critics a voice than to maintain a platform where they can communicate with citizens. The question remains if this will lead to other departments removing their social media pages.
But one thing is obvious: If government creates a tax-funded public forum inviting feedback, only to delete comments that are critical, that can probably be defined as censorship.