Red Oak, Iowa — Who would guess that simply exercising your free speech right to criticize the government could end up with charges of harassing police and having to retain a lawyer to defend yourself? But that's what happened to Red Oak resident Jon Goldsmith when he wrote an angry post on his Facebook, denouncing the behavior of an Adams County deputy sheriff at a town festival last July.
And now the ACLU of Iowa has filed a lawsuit in federal court defending Jon's First Amendment right to speak out against the government without retaliation.
The lawsuit challenges the filing of third-degree harassment charges against Jon for his angry—and often profane—post. Jon said everyone should be able to speak out against the government when they feel it's abused its power.
“It’s important to bring this lawsuit because the Adams County Sheriff’s Office should be upholding the laws, not violating them. It’s a matter of free speech to be able to criticize your government, and that includes the sheriff’s office and that includes Facebook," Jon said.
"People who speak out shouldn’t be charged with harassment and have to pay lawyers to defend them just because they said something that the sheriff’s office took offense at. I’m doing this because I’m afraid that if someone doesn’t stop them, they’ll continue to do this, wrongly, to a lot of people,” Jon said.
In July 2018, Jon wrote an angry post on his Facebook page that shared a mugshot of someone he knew, which had been posted on the Adams County Sheriff's Office official Facebook page. (The Adams County Sheriff's Office Facebook page consists primarily of mugshots of local people in the community it arrests.)
Jon had attended a festival in Corning, the county seat of Adams County, which is next to Montgomery County, where Jon lives. Jon observed Adams County Sheriff's Deputy Cory Dorsey stopping a motorist for a brake light and conducting a drug dog search of the man's car. No drugs were found, and Jon felt the man was mistreated.
Later at the festival, Jon observed Dorsey "body slam" someone else he knew, for no reason Jon could observe. Later, when Jon saw a mugshot of the body-slammed man on the Adams County Sheriff's Facebook page, he felt compelled to speak up against what he viewed as improper and abusive police conduct. Jon’s post criticizing the actions of Deputy Dorsey expressed anger and employed curse words. The post didn't threaten or advocate any violent or illegal activity.
Shortly thereafter, the Adams County Sheriff's office charged Jon with third-degree harassment, which is a simple misdemeanor and carries with it imprisonment of up to 30 days in jail and a maximum fine of $625.
It was a textbook case of retaliating against someone for exercising their First Amendment rights. After all, the First Amendment and the Iowa Constitution protect people who criticize government officials—a fundamental element of our democracy. There is no exception because someone expresses their anger in inartful ways, is disrespectful, causes offense, or uses curse words. Police are not allowed to try to put people in jail because they annoy the police or say things the police disagree with on social media or otherwise.
The Adams County Sheriff's Office charged that Jon had posted something "threatening" because he called Dorsey "a fucking pile of shit" and a "stupid sum bitch" and because of his comment that "when you get shit canned I'll hire you to walk my dog and pick up his shit." In addition, Jon’s post had criticized Deputy Dorsey for using excessive force in body slamming a festival attendant, and in engaging in an unconstitutional stop and search using a drug dog.
Besides having to hire a lawyer to defend himself, the ordeal resulted in Jon suffering serious distress from the charges, requiring medical treatment for high blood pressure.
You can read more about the case here.