Iowa Sheriff Settles Lawsuit Over Critical Facebook Post

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – An Iowa sheriff agreed Monday to pay $10,000 to settle a federal free-speech lawsuit filed by a man who was charged with criminal harassment for a Facebook post critical of a sheriff’s deputy.

Jon Goldsmith in downtown Red Oak, Iowa. (Photo via the ACLU of Iowa)

Jon Richard Goldsmith, 50, of Red Oak, was charged with third-degree harassment in response to a profanity-laced Facebook post that criticized what Goldsmith considered to be police misconduct by Adams County Deputy Sheriff Cory Dorsey during a traffic stop he witnessed in Corning in July 2018.

The charge was later dismissed in state court, but Goldsmith filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the charge violated his constitutional rights under the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments, and that the ordeal had caused him distress, including a spike in blood pressure that required medical treatment.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which represented Goldsmith, announced the settlement Monday, in which the Adams County Sheriff’s Office agreed to pay Goldsmith $10,000. A court order stipulating the deal was filed in Des Moines federal court Monday.

The order permanently enjoins Adams County and the sheriff’s office from bringing or threatening criminal charges against any person for posting “lawful content” protected by the First Amendment.

The county and sheriff are also permanently enjoined from deleting from its Facebook pages comments protected by the First Amendment, and from blocking users who post lawful comment or viewpoints on the county’s Facebook pages.

In addition, the sheriff’s office must provide training for its officers and adopt a social media policy approved by the ACLU on free speech rights. The sheriff’s office also agreed to pay the ACLU’s legal fees.

“I’m especially glad the department will get free speech training,” Goldsmith said in a statement released by the ACLU. “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.”

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said, “As the court’s injunction today confirms, people have a constitutional free speech right to criticize their government. Police are not allowed to charge people with crimes because they annoy the police or say things the police disagree with—on social media like Facebook, or otherwise. There is no exception because someone expresses anger in inartful ways, causes offense, or uses curse words.”

A message left with Sheriff Alan Johannes seeking comment was not immediately returned Monday, nor was an email to Adams County Attorney Andrew Knuth.

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