Ex-Sheriff Cleared in Free-Speech Case Over Facebook Taunts

MILWAUKEE (CN) – A federal jury found Monday that former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke did not violate a Wisconsin man’s free-speech rights by mocking him on social media about an airport encounter stemming from the man shaking his head at the sheriff during a flight last year.

Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.

Daniel Black, represented by attorney Anne Sulton, filed a federal lawsuit last February alleging First, Fourth and 14th Amendment violations against Clarke, Milwaukee County and six sheriff deputies.

Black’s allegations centered on questioning at the Milwaukee airport after a flight from Dallas, as well as the former sheriff’s subsequent social media posts.

“While boarding the flight, Black saw a man that looked like Sheriff Clarke wearing clothes emblazoned with the logo and colors of the Dallas Cowboys football team. Black asked the man if he was Sheriff Clarke, and Sheriff Clarke responded that he was,” the complaint states. “Black moved towards the rear of the airplane and shook his head. Sheriff Clarke asked Black if he had a problem. Black shook his head no and continued walking and took a seat in the rear of the airplane.”

Once Black got off the airplane, he says Clarke was waiting for him near the gate and motioned for deputy sheriffs to stop him. Black claims two deputies interrogated him about his political opinions.

Black posted on Facebook about the encounter afterward and then filed a formal complaint in Milwaukee alleging illegal search and seizure.

In response, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office posted a link on Facebook to the complaint and a comment from Clarke, which allegedly said: “Next time [Black] or anyone else pulls this stunt on a plane they may get knocked out. The Sheriff said he does not have to wait for some goof to assault him. He reserves the reasonable right to pre-empt a possible assault.”

The next day, Clarke posted a meme of Black on the same account with the words, “Cheer up, snowflake . . . if Sheriff Clarke were to really harass you, you wouldn’t be around to whine about it.”

Black claimed the posts did not accurately represent what actually ensued at the airport and said he became the target of threatening and anti-Semitic comments online.

U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller dismissed Black’s Fourth and 14th Amendment claims, but allowed his First Amendment retaliation claim to proceed to trial.

“Clarke’s posts could reasonably be understood as a ‘threat, coercion, or intimidation that punishment . . . will immediately follow,’” Stadtmueller wrote in a Jan. 5 ruling. “They say as much on their face, and in aggressive and combative language.”

Black told jurors that he was so traumatized by the incident that he wants therapy because of Clarke’s actions, according to Fox 6 in Milwaukee.

But the jury wasn’t convinced. It cleared the former sheriff on Monday, finding after three hours of deliberation that Clarke’s Facebook posts were not enough to chill Black’s future speech.

Clarke did not attend the trial.

Margaret Daun with Milwaukee’s Corporation Counsel, which represents the county, said the jury’s verdict “reflected common sense.”

“The jury saw Mr. Black accurately, as a man who sought out the public spotlight by requesting and giving numerous television and radio interviews, and by posting countless times online over many months about his interaction with the former Sheriff, both before and after the former Sheriff posted online,” Daun said in a statement. “In summary, the jury saw reality: Mr. Black got into a hyperbolic, online spat with the county’s former sheriff.  He initiated that spat and continued – willingly – to participate in that spat.”

Black’s attorney not did not immediately respond to an email request for comment Tuesday.

The controversial former sheriff resigned in August to take a new job as a senior adviser and spokesperson for the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action.

Clarke has also been under fire in a slew of lawsuits filed against him over his management of the Milwaukee County jail, where four inmates have died since 2016.

He was sued last March over a man who died of thirst in solitary confinement and was hit with another lawsuit that same month from a woman who claims she was shackled while giving birth in the jail. Before that, he was sued in December 2016 over a baby who died just hours after being born in the jail.

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