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Posts on Police Facebook Led to Arrest, Man Says

MADISON, Wis. (CN) - A Wisconsin man who used Facebook to complain about the racial tones of a police investigation was unfairly arrested, he claims in Federal Court.

The complaint filed Monday against the village of Arena and Officer Nicholas Stroik involves the community's reactions to the July 19, 2012, arrests of "several African-Americans suspected of burglary."

Police had "canvassed Arena neighborhoods ... [and] the suspects were arrested later that night after a local resident apprehended them at gunpoint," according to the complaint.

Thomas Smith, who was living in Arena at the time, says Stroik set the wheels in motion with July 20 post to the police department's Facebook page, thanking the community for their assistance in the investigation.

Smith and several others commented on a post by the department thanking citizens for their help in apprehending the suspects, who were African American males.

"Several Facebook users later posted comments on the Facebook post," the complaint states. "While some comments praised the work of the Village of Arena police, others were highly critical."

Smith says he chimed in after at least two others left comments that accused the department of racism.

One commenter has since "identified defendant Stroik as the police officer who told her that the African-American suspects would stand out because they did not belong in Arena," the complaint states.

Smith allegedly posted two comments: "Fuck the fucking cops they ant shit but fucking racist basturds an fucking all of y'all who is racist" and "Fuck them nigers bitchs wat you got on us not a dam thing so fuck off dicks." [Spelling in original.]

He says Stroik deleted his posts on July 22, along with the other negative comments.

"Defendant Stroik did not delete the few Facebook comments praising the police for its handling of the situation," the complaint states.

Smith says he then received a phone call from the Arena Police Department, "asking him if he had posted the Facebook comments attributed to him."

"Smith told the police 'I put it on there, I don't regret it and I mean it,'" the complaint states.

He was allegedly arrested that night and charged with disorderly conduct, unlawful use of a computerized communication system and unlawful use of a telephone.

Smith says his bail conditions included a ban against his use of a computer or phone, except to gain employment, and a requirement that he give the police his computer passwords.

After a jury found Smith guilty last year of unlawful use of a computerized system and disorderly conduct, he was sentenced to one year of probation, 25 hours of community service and "other penalties," according to the complaint.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals vacated those convictions this past July, however, "noting that there was no federal or state case law supporting the state's contention that the First Amendment would allow the criminalization of Smith's criticisms of the Village and its officers," the complaint states.

Smith now seeks punitive damages for retaliatory arrest and other violations of his federal civil rights.

By deleting negative comments left on the department's Facebook page, Stroik illustrated that he was improperly trained on his role as administrator, the complaint alleges.

"Whether the Department's Facebook page was a traditional public forum, a designated forum, or a nonpublic forum, such viewpoint discrimination violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments," the complaint states.

Smith is represented by attorney Thomas Aquino.

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