SAN DIEGO — The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has taken down its Facebook page after a man accused it of violating his free speech rights and sued for deleting his comments.
UT San Diego reports that Dimitrios Karras filed a federal lawsuit on Oct. 27 alleging the department violated his First Amendment right when it deleted two Facebook posts critical of Sheriff Bill Gore and then banned him from further commenting.
The newspaper says the lawsuit opens up legal questions over government's growing use of social media, and to what degree officials should be able to control the public conversation.
Karras' lawyers argue sites like Facebook are the new public forum and if comment is allowed, all citizens should be able to voice their opinions.
"They must allow speech to be heard, even if it's obnoxious," said Karras' attorney, Scott McMillan. "Unless it's something egregious, they have limited latitude in censoring."
A similar lawsuit was settled with the Honolulu Police Department agreeing to allow unrestricted posting.
The county's counsel argues Karras' comments didn't follow posted participation guidelines and were off topic. His comments under a posting about braking for school buses referred to a botched standoff with white supremacists known as Ruby Ridge that resulted in discipline of a number of FBI agents. Gore, then an FBI supervisor, was not among them.
"There is no doubt that the Sheriff can constitutionally regulate the comments that are made on his Facebook page," Senior Deputy County Counsel Thomas Bunton wrote in court papers, referring to a federal court ruling that said the government "may limit the forum to certain groups or subjects" as long as it doesn't discriminate based on viewpoint.
According to court papers, the department took down the Facebook page "to avoid the time, expense and hassle necessary to enforce the Department's policies regarding comments."
At a preliminary injunction hearing scheduled Thursday, Karras is expected to ask a judge to order the department to immediately restore his deleted comments and allow him to post again. He's also asking for damages.
County attorneys say the posting issue is moot, because the page no longer exists.
Information from: U-T San Diego, http://www.utsandiego.com