Speaking freely on social media is not a crime.
Posting angry Facebook comments on police departments’ official pages is not a crime either. It’s protected by the First Amendment.
But that did not stop the Arena Police Department in Wisconsin from arresting a man in 2012 after he left insulting – but non-threatening – comments on its Facebook page.
Now, a $35,000 legal settlement will cost residents of Wisconsin’s Village of Arena each $43 per man, woman and child.
The Arena Police Department arrested 23-year-old Thomas G. Smith three years ago for disorderly conduct and other charges because of two Facebook comments.
It was a callous act of censorship.
One must now wonder what Village of Arena needs protection from, more than protection from it’s own police officers as Popehat postulated, and the Arena Police K9 officer and dog unit. The enclave 800 residents would fit neatly into a single suburban subdivision. The town is 35 miles away from Madison and 8 miles away from its next slightly bigger neighboring town.
Smith probably never expected all of the attention over one Facebook comment about an incident where the mostly white town’s officers arrested several african-american men.
But he didn’t know how thin-skinned Wisconsin police can be when you make accusatory remarks.
Mr. Smith was arrested for saying the following”
“Fuck this fucking cops they ant shit but fucking racist basturds an fucking all of y’all who is racist.” and this (italicized text indicates Smith’s words and spelling as in original) too, “Fuck them nigers bitchs wat you got on us not a dam thing so fuck off dicks.”
As a 2014 article in the Huffington Post noted, even saying “fucking asshole” in a hushed tone to a police officer’s face falls under the realm of protected First Amendment free speech.
After the arrest and subsequent prosecution, a Wisconsin judge and jury in Iowa County initially convicted Smith of using “fighting words,” which is disorderly conduct over the internet, and ordered probation and community service.
But the state appeals court exonerated this citizen two years later. The ruling is posted below.
Thomas had done nothing more harmful than exercising his First Amendment rights in an offensive manner.
Smith’s attorney, Tom Aquino, explained all of the details of the case, and had the following to say about Arena police’s chilling investigation into a resident for airing his grievances towards the local government officials:
We have always believed that the defendants’ liability was clear. Federal and state courts have routinely held that the right to free speech is not limited to polite speech alone. In our country, we are entitled to criticize our government with passion. The use of some four-letter words in the course of doing so is never a crime. We hope that the Arena Police Department, and other police departments across the state, have now learned this lesson. As for Mr. Smith, it has been more than three years since he was wrongfully arrested, and he is happy to finally have this entire episode behind him.
According to the Washington Post’s report on Arena’s $35,000 settlement, the Village’s outside counsel was quite pleased with the costs of the settlement, which will now be passed onto the taxpayers saying:
A press release issued by the village, which was sent to The Post by Meg Vergeront, attorney for the defendants, called the $35,000 “a small fraction of what Mr. Smith claimed for his damages and fees” and said the agreement meant that the village could avoid a potentially lengthy court fight.
“While the Village has many defenses to Mr. Smith’s alleged claims, the case was not scheduled to go to trial until April, 2016,” the release said. “During that seven-month period, Village employees and officials would have had to devote significant amounts of time dealing with the lawsuit. Resolving the dispute now means that the Village and its employees and focus their efforts on serving the Village without distraction.”
It’s hard to imagine how much distraction a cop protecting an 800-person village can possibly have. In many places in America, 800 people live in a single condominium complex, and are ably defended by private security – without a K9 unit either.
A website claiming to support Arena K9’s man & dog police duo says that, “the Arena K-9 unit will benefit the communities in the continuing fight against drugs, crime, and better assist in ‘search and rescue’ of community members.” The supporters maintain an account at @K9dioge too, which presumably is run by the only Arena K9 officer which likely makes its contents public as well.
Presumably, this means the town’s officers are diligently scanning the social media posts of residents for more crime, then using their K9 to enter homes in drug searches, or it’s yet another frivolous police agency.
Either way, the Village of Arena’s residents and taxpayers are stuck with the bill, and another police department is buying penance for their own ignorance of the Constitution.
When will cops learn, that Americans have the Constitutionally protected Right to free speech and to petition their government?
Ed. Note: The supporters of Arena’s K9 unit are having a spaghetti dinner to raise cash for their police animal this week.
Our second annual spaghetti dinner. Hope to see all of our supporters out for this year's event. pic.twitter.com/E9FagtgmGI
— K9 DIOGE (@K9Dioge) October 4, 2015