A New Jersey police department deactivated its Facebook account after local activists posted unfavorable comments on their page over the arrest of a prominent businessman and weed activist known as NJ Weedman.
Trenton police raided Ed Forchion’s restaurant, NJWeedman’s Joint back in April.
In March, police arrived at his religious cannabis temple, recognized by the state of New Jersey’s tax authorities, Liberty Bell Temple III, and asked the congregants inside to vacate the premises.
“They came out here like it was a shooting,” Forchion said. “The only thing that was missing was yellow tape.”
Unlike Forchion’s licensed restaurant, which falls under the city ordinace that prohibits businesses from operating between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., Forchion insists the Liberty Bell III is a church that can legally operate 24/7 under the U.S. Constitution.
“I’m saying it’s a church. I can operate whenever I want to,” Forchion told the Trentonian. “The police would never, under any circumstances, show up at Shiloh Baptist Church after 11 and tell them to stop their activities.”
Forchion says one of the officers who ushered congregants out of his cannabis church alleged he was “trying to fleece the system” by calling his cannabis sanctuary a church.
“It’s actually a temple.”
“You have freedom of assembly. That’s what we were doing last night: Assembling,” Forchion told the Trentonion. “I formed it as a church for a reason: I have alternative thoughts and beliefs. Marijuana is a sacrament. This is a church. A church doesn’t have an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ sign.”
Forchion didn’t waste any time and filed a civil complaint alleging police violated his First Amendment rights and sought an injunction to stop the city from enforcing the hours-of-operation laws against his late-night assembly gatherings in his cannabis church.
“We are not a business, but a temple. We are open 24 hours,” Forchion wrote in the lawsuit.
He originally opened the “Liberty Bell Temple II” religious corporation in 2009, successfully proved its legitimacy in California, and said he was similarly confident he would prove its legitimacy when brought the matter to a federal court in New Jersey.
But just weeks after Forchion filed his civil lawsuit, police raided NJWeedman’s Joint, allegedly seizing $19,000 in marijuana, arresting 11. Police say they also raided a homeowner in connection to the investigation, arresting the 52-year-old for seven grams of pot and paraphernalia.
That’s what prompted activists to leave negative comments about the raid on the Trenton Police Department’s Facebook page, which were subsequently scrubbed by the department.
Now those activists are working in concert with Forchion, filing public records requests regarding the department’s page, which is governed by state law that requires retention of public records and prevents those records from being destroyed.
“This is a group of supporters who have waged war on my behalf,” Forchion told the Trentonian.
Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, John Paff, commented on the incident stating he was concerned city police removed unfavorable public comments from its page, calling it a form of “censorship”, insinuating Trenton Police opened the door for a potential lawsuit when they violated the First Amendment by deleting comments that painted Trenton police in a negative light.
“For example, you can’t tell people at a town meeting, ‘As long as we like your comments, you can have three minutes to speak,” Paff said. “It’s core First Amendment stuff.”
Instead of complying with the Open Public Records Act, Forchion said the City clerk Richard Kachmar sent a memo ordering the department to shut down the page.
Kachmar said, “It was an internal memo. If you have a copy of it or someone released it, they’re in violation of the law.”
“I cannot divulge anything that was in that memo and I have no further comment on this issue,” he said, claiming the memo was not public record.
Lt. Stephen Varn, Trenton Police’s spokesman declined to say if the Facebook page’s removal was due to issues with New Jersey’s OPRA.
“We have deactivated our Facebook page until such time as our social media policy can be reviewed and updated,” Varn said.
In November of 2014, PINAC reported about the San Diego Sheriff’s Department deactivating its Facebook page, after 2nd amendment rights activist and business owner Dimitri Karras filed a lawsuit alleging 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. [And] Defendants continue to punish those that fail to conform to the government message by banning them from further discussion.”
Karras took screenshots of his comments before and after they were deleted.
He ended up settling with the department, agreeing to drop the lawsuit in exchange for $20 for himself and about $23,000 in attorneys fees.
Karras had been banned for comments about Sheriff Gore who 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.
His comments were deleted after ATF agents raided his former business, Ares Armor, seizing some of his product, 80% lower receivers–a variant receiver for AR-15s, that they say he wasn’t supposed to have, attempting to coerce him in to giving up a list of his customers.
He ultimately refused to give up his customer-list and stated the subsequent free speech lawsuit was never about money.
In a different lawsuit, after two years of litigation, a Honolulu Federal Court ordered the Honolulu Police Department to pay $31K in attorneys fees to Chris Baker, another Second Amendment activists who sued over First Amendment violations after the HPD removed his Facebook comments from an HPD Facebook page.
That lawsuit alleged the Honolulu Police unlawfully administer their Facebook Fan page in violation of American citizens’ right to free speech by arbitrarily banning users who made unfavorable comments about the department.
The first-of-its-kind lawsuit sought a Temporary Restraining Order and a Motion for Preliminary Injunction in order to restore the Baker’s deleted posts, permit him to post to the HPD’s page, and to prohibit HPD from banning other people or removing posts based on political content.
Last week, in Alabama, the Wetumpka Police Department deleted their Facebook page after commenters expressed their thoughts about First Amendment activist Keith Golden, better known as Bama Camera, who posted a video to youtube of a First Amendment Audit outside the Wetumpka Police Department, which resulted in him being searched against his will, being illegally detained and having his camera seized.
Police arrested Golden the next day on felony interference with public safety communications for posting the Wetumpka Police Department’s number, encouraging viewers to contact police to express grievances over the matter.
PINAC also reposted the information from the video in an article covering the story.
Police say he jammed up their phone lines by re-posting the already-public information online in his video, which ended up going viral.
Readers and concerned citizens allege Wetumpka police violated Golden’s First Amendment rights during the audit, which the department excused as “an investigation”, as well as his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable search or seizure when he wasn’t suspected of an actual crime.
With Wetumpka Police Department’s official page down, citizens have taken to the Wetumpka Herald, who apparently support the First Amendment rights of citizens and its readers, stating it wouldn’t delete comments from readers re-posting the WPD’s contact information on its page.
We encourage readers to stop by to leave a positive review on their Facebook page, and perhaps thank them for embracing the rights of citizens and allowing the public information to be lawfully posted there.
Chris Baker of the Hawaii Defense Foundation, and plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Honolulu Police Department emphasized the importance behind filing such lawsuits over First Amendment violations committed on tax payer-funded social media.
“We have already seen governments infringe online speech. Just look at countries like China or Egypt, who have at times prohibited these sites in order to silence their citizens into submission. Deleting comments and banning people from expressing their opinion is simply an act of oppression. However, we are not China, nor Egypt. American citizens have a voice, and these practices must stop.” he said.
Have your comments critical of a tax-payer funded social media page been deleted? Have you been banned from participating in discussing matters important to society on a government-run social media page?
If so, you may want to take some before-and after-screenshots and contact a civil rights attorney.