Should criticizing the police get you charged with criminal harassment? Not if you didn’t make any threats, according to the ACLU and an Adams County man. Nevertheless, the man was charged with harassment in the third degree when he criticized the behavior of an Adams County Sheriff’s deputy.
The charges were eventually dropped, but the man has filed a civil rights lawsuit in an effort to prevent Adams County from charging other people when they engage in constitutionally protected speech criticizing officers.
The charges stemmed from a July 2018 traffic stop that the man witnessed in Corning. During a community festival, an Adams County deputy pulled over the truck of one of the man’s acquaintances. The initial traffic stop was for a brake light violation.
Even though there was apparently no reason to suspect criminal activity, the deputy searched the truck and even brought in a drug dog. However, the search didn’t result in any evidence and the occupants of the truck were let go.
At that point, according to the Adams County man, the deputy crossed the street and “bodyslammed” a bystander.
The Adams County man was still furious the next day. He criticized the deputy’s actions on Facebook, calling him things like a “stupid sum bitch” and a “fucking pile of shit.” He also said that he hoped the county would be sued and the deputy fired.
The deputy’s supervisor then filed the harassment charges, claiming that the man “did intentionally write a threatening and vulgar statement” about the deputy in the Facebook post.
Is general abuse and hope for consequences a threat?
“This is really a classic free speech case,” says the legal director of the ACLU of Iowa.
“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 explained.
“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.”
Although the criminal charges were dropped, they weren’t harmless. The Adams County man was so spooked he deleted the Facebook post and temporarily disabled his account. When government action scares people into giving up their free speech rights, the courts call this “chilling free speech.”
Additionally, the man says that the stress of being criminally charged caused him anxiety, difficulty breathing and abnormally high blood pressure. He had to get prescription medication to bring his blood pressure back to the normal range.