Red Oak, Iowa — The Adams County Sheriff's office has agreed to pay ACLU of Iowa Client Jon Goldsmith of Red Oak $10,000 in damages after charging him for harassment when he posted a criticism of a sheriff's deputy on his own Facebook page. It must also pay attorney's fees.
The settlement also includes:
- A permanent injunction that orders the Adams County Sheriff’s Office to stop criminally charging people who criticize its law enforcement officers
- A requirement that the sheriff's office provide its officers training approved by the ACLU on free speech rights
- A requirement to adopt a social media policy, also to be approved by the ACLU
Last summer, Jon wrote an angry post laced with swear words on his Facebook page, denouncing the behavior of an Adams County deputy sheriff at a recent town festival. He was charged with third-degree harrassment by the sherriff's office because of the post, which is a simple misdemeanor and carries with it imprisonment of up to 30 days in jail and a maximum fine of $625.
But Facebook posts are speech, too, and the government can't shut it down simply because it is critical of government, is angry, or uses profanity. So the ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit in federal court defending Jon's First Amendment right to speak out against the government without retaliation.
Jon said he's glad that a settlement has been reached. "I'm especially glad the department will get free speech training," he said. "I hope it stops them from doing this to other people. It's ridiculous that I had to get a lawyer to defend my right to free speech. People need to be able to speak up when an officer is doing wrong. The sheriff's office shouldn't be able to shut them down just for doing that."
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.
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.