DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – An Iowa man backed by the American Civil Liberties Union claims in a federal lawsuit that police violated his First Amendment rights by charging him with criminal harassment for posting criticism of a deputy sheriff on Facebook.
Jon Richard Goldsmith, 50, of Red Oak, was charged with third-degree harassment in response to a profanity-laced Facebook post that excoriated what Goldsmith considered to be police misconduct by Adams County Deputy Sheriff Cory Dorsey during a traffic stop he witnessed in Corning on July 27, 2018.
The charge was subsequently dismissed in state court, but Goldsmith claims in his lawsuit filed Tuesday in Des Moines federal court that besides violating his constitutional rights under the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments, the criminal charge caused him distress, including a spike in blood pressure that required medical treatment.
Goldsmith’s complaint was filed by Des Moines attorney Glen S. Downey and Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. The complaint names as defendants Adams County, Dorsey and Adams County Sergeant Paul Hogan.
“This is really a classic free speech case,” Bettis Austen said at a Tuesday press conference in Des Moines.
Adams County Attorney Andrew Knuth did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the lawsuit. A woman who answered the phone in the Adams County Sheriff’s Office said the sheriff would have no comment.
Goldsmith became angry when he witnessed Dorsey make a traffic stop involving an acquaintance of Goldsmith’s during a community festival. Dorsey stopped a truck for an alleged brake light violation, which led to the use of a K9 drug dog and a search of the truck.
The search turned up nothing illegal and the vehicle occupants were allowed to leave. According to Goldsmith, however, Dorsey then crossed the street and “bodyslammed” another bystander.
The next day, Goldsmith criticized Dorsey’s actions in a Facebook post that, among other things, called him “dumbass Dorsey,” a “stupid sum bitch” and a “fucking pile of shit.” He added that he hoped the county gets sued and the deputy gets fired.
Dorsey’s supervisor, Sergeant Hogan, subsequently filed a criminal complaint against Goldsmith in Adams County District Court charging him with harassment in the third degree for the Facebook post. Hogan signed an affidavit stating that Goldsmith “did intentionally write a threatening and vulgar statement about Cory Dorsey on Facebook.”
“As a result of the charges and his fear of continued retaliation for his post,” the lawsuit states, “Goldsmith has experienced anxiety, high blood pressure, and difficulty breathing. A visit to his physician following the filing of charges against him showed that Goldsmith’s blood pressure was abnormally high and dangerous, and he was given a prescription medication to lower it to within the normal range.”
Goldsmith deleted the offending Facebook post and temporarily disabled his account.
An attorney hired by Goldsmith filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by the trial judge.
When asked by a reporter at Tuesday’s press conference if there is a fine line between free speech and harassment, Bettis Austen of the ACLU said the line is not a fine one.
“There is strong protection under the First Amendment to criticize the police, or other government officials. And to do that in ways that are annoying or offensive, even using vulgar speech or curse words,” she said. “All of that is protected by the First Amendment. The exceptions that do exist are for true threats, actual threats of violence. And that is not something that was present in this case. This case is about core political speech criticizing law enforcement.”
Goldsmith’s complaint seeks punitive damages against the defendants, a permanent injunction barring them from criminally charging people for constitutionally protected speech that criticizes their official actions, and an order requiring training of Adams County police officers regarding free speech rights.