Thursday, a post on the Walton County Sheriff’s Office Thursday announced that, beginning immediately, the administrator of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page will no longer remove any Facebook comments or block anyone from commenting on the page. This applies to comments even if they are “off-topic, rude or offensive,” as had been the policy for blocking or banning in the past. In addition, any active Facebook user name which had previously been banned has been reactivated.
“Going forward, comments will only be filtered for obscene language and criminal conduct. We have made this change because of the current uncertainty of how the law applies to the use and administration of Facebook pages by government officials,” WCSO wrote on the Facebook page.
Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman confirmed that this is the result of a lawsuit filed against him and some other members of WCSO by Chris Davis, a former resident of Walton County. In his civil suit, Davis contends that his civil rights were violated by having his comments removed and by being ultimately banned from the site.
“I don’t believe the judge has ruled yet, but our attorneys have advised us that we need to go ahead and do this, based on the testimony given at the trial,” Chapman said. He said he did not take the stand last week during the court hearing in the United States Middle District of Georgia in Macon. The Facebook administrator, Nancy Stone, however, did give testimony.
“We would put up a post congratulating kids at CHAMPS (A Sheriff’s Program – Choosing Healthy Activities and Methods Promoting Safety) and people will come and post all sorts of off-topic comments on how terrible the Sheriff’s Office is. We would remove them. But now we won’t. They will just be left there,” he said.
Chapman said he personally never posts anything on Facebook or even goes to Facebook page to check it.
“I don’t do Facebook. I don’t even know the password to get in there. I have an administrator to do that,” Chapman said. “I would prefer that we didn’t have it at all.”
The first amendment case against Chapman and the administrator of the Facebook page is just one item in several charges that Davis has levied at Chapman and various other members of WCSO. He also claims harassment and unlawful arrest that eventually forced him out of the county. Also named in the suit are WCSO Investigator William Knight and WCSO Deputy Eric Whitlow. Stone was initially sued as a John Doe until her name as the administrator was revealed.
Facebook itself has faced criticism for blocking and banning certain speech. Although Social Media does offer the tools for blocking and banning people and comments, it is relatively new territory when comes to government and the First Amendment. Chapman said that social media still appears to be a grey area, but they will do what the attorneys have advised them to, as long as it is not being used for criminal intent. Obscene language also will not be allowed.
The case is being heard by C. Ashley Royal, a Senior U.S. Judge in the Middle District of Georgia who has a strong background in civil rights law. At the time of going to press, we had not yet received a response from Davis’ attorney.