Sheriff's office agrees to stop banning negative Facebook comments

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A local sheriff's office has agreed to stop banning or blocking people for posting "off-topic or offensive remarks" on its official Facebook page.

The decision comes in the wake of a federal lawsuit filed by a man who tried to criticize the Walton County sheriff on Facebook but was blocked by his staff.

"It was like duct tape placed over my mouth," complained Chris Davis.

Davis is clearly no fan of the Walton County Sheriff's Office. An ugly dispute with his neighbors landed him in the Walton County jail. All charges were later dropped after he agreed to move out of Walton County.

But Davis still wasn't happy with the way he was treated by Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman. So he logged onto the official Walton County Sheriff's Facebook Page to let his feelings be heard with posts like this:

"Sheriff Joe will block your butt, intimidate and take vengeance on those who aren't loyal. Some people are only badge licking so they feel Sheriff Joe will like them"

But after a short time, his critical comments would disappear. Eventually, Davis said he couldn't comment at all.

"I could access their web page, their Facebook page," he said. "But the ability to comment, like or share was gone. I just don't think a government agency should be able to delete or modify or censor citizen's speech in any way."

So last year with the help of the attorney Jennifer Hickey, Davis sued four employees of the Walton County Sheriff's office, including one unhappy defendant.

"I've got more important things to do than sit around and look at things on Facebook," muttered Sheriff Joe Chapman.

Chapman said he rarely goes on the website. Still, he believes the Facebook page is a good way to share important community news like road closures or gas leaks.

In federal court, the Walton County Sheriff's Office disclosed it blocked 29 people for violating their policy to not post "off-topic, rude, politically-related or offensive comments."

Curiously, Davis wasn't on the banned list produced in court. Turns out, the sheriff's office page administrator was hiding his comments from public view.

We asked the sheriff whether there was a concerted effort by his office to prevent Davis from posting comments.

"I would say so," Chapman replied.

So what's the harm in letting someone say something critical about his office or him?

"Well, I don't care," Chapman said. "I don't mind. They can get on there and say anything they want to."

The sheriff said some people would add negative comments to a post that had nothing to do with their anger, like someone celebrating an award. So those comments would be hidden or deleted.

But Davis said that happened for all critical posts. "For the negative comments to miraculously disappear and the positive comments to stay on there, that was a real telltale sign," he said.

We checked with other local sheriff's offices. Henry, Douglas and Fayette County have rules banning comments for reasons like threats, profanity, offensive or inappropriate comments. Douglas County has banned 13 people from posting. Fayette has banned 5. Clayton County has no policy but has banned 39 people. In total, we counted 86 people who were banned from posting on those pages.

But that may soon change. A federal court recently ruled President Trump can't block people he doesn't like from commenting on his Twitter page, citing a violation of their First Amendment Rights.

Joe Chapman and Walton County also reached a settlement with Chris Davis, reinstating everyone who had been blocked or banned. Walton County agreed to pay $10,000 to cover legal fees.

"Everyone is unblocked," Davis said happily. "Everyone on both sides. No matter what their opinion is. They can go on that page today and talk."

Of course, as long as there is a page.

"I'm trying to weigh in my mind if Facebook is worth it," admitted sheriff Chapman. "If it's worth the aggravation. Why don't they get in the car and drive down here and sit down and tell me what they think? Instead of getting on the Facebook?"