Red Oak, Iowa — Today the ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit in federal court defending the right of a Montgomery County man to post criticism of a nearby county sheriff's office on his Facebook page.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. It challenges the filing of criminal charges against Red Oak resident Jon Goldsmith, who was charged with simple misdemeanor harassment for a Facebook post he made expressing his criticism of the policing methods he witnessed by an Adams County sheriff's deputy at a local town festival.
The ACLU of Iowa’s cooperating attorney in the case is Glen Downey, of The Law Offices of Glen S. Downey, LLC, in Des Moines. Downey has worked with the ACLU of Iowa on a host of important free speech cases.
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, who 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 carries with it imprisonment of up to 30 days in jail and a maximum fine of $625.
ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said, "The actions taken against Mr. Goldsmith by Adams County are a textbook case of retaliating against someone for exercising their First Amendment rights. The First Amendment and the Iowa Constitution protect people who criticize government officials from criminal charges based on their criticism. In fact, protecting this type of speech directed at government officials is what the First Amendment and Iowa Constitution are all about. There is no exception because someone expresses anger in inartful ways, 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.
You can view the post, which is included in the complaint.
Jon ended up having to hire a lawyer to defend himself against the charges. His lawyer contacted the ACLU of Iowa, which assisted in getting the criminal charges dropped. He also experienced serious distress from the charges, requiring medical treatment by his doctor for high blood pressure.
Now that the charges are dismissed, the ACLU of Iowa is suing Adams County for the underlying free speech violation.
Jon said he felt he should take legal action because he and others 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.
The lawsuit is filed specifically against Adams County and Adams County Deputy Sheriff Cory Dorsey and his superior, Adams County Sergeant Paul Hogan.
Among other things, the lawsuit asks the court to:
- Find that Adams County, Deputy Dorsey, and Sergeant Hogan violated Goldsmith’s rights to free speech protected by the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions.
- Order Adams County, Deputy Dorsey, and Sergeant Hogan to stop criminally charging people who speak out against law enforcement. The lawsuit details two other incidents of deputies arresting people for exercising free speech (Count IV of the complaint).
- Require training of Adams County Sheriff’s Office law enforcement officers about free speech rights.
- Require Adams County to pay damages to Goldsmith for the harms resulting from the free speech violation.
Photos and a video clip of Jon Goldsmith can be found here. They are the property of the ACLU of Iowa and media are granted express permission to use and disseminate them.