Hawaii gun group sues police over deleted Facebook posts
Editor’s note: The Associated Press reported Sept. 7 that Honolulu police had changed their Facebook posting rules in response to the lawsuit. The police department now allows unrestricted posting on the page. As a result, a federal judge said the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction was moot.
HONOLULU — A gun-advocacy group has filed a lawsuit against the city over deleted posts on the Honolulu Police Department’s Facebook page.
Hawaii Defense Foundation filed a federal lawsuit Aug. 22 alleging violations of the First Amendment, claiming Honolulu police arbitrarily delete posts and ban those who comment unfavorably about the department on the social-media site.
The lawsuit argues that the department’s Facebook page was created to be “a forum open to the public,” and that removing comments violates freedom of speech. The plaintiffs are the group’s president, Christopher Baker, and Derek Scammon, assistant director. Numerous comments they posted were removed without explanation, the lawsuit said, and both men were later banned from the page.
“Individual members and supporters of Hawaii Defense Foundation continue to face an ongoing threat that their posts or commentary will be arbitrarily deleted and/or that they may be banned from the page,” the lawsuit said.
As far as lawyers for the group know, the lawsuit is the first in the nation that deals with deleted social-media posts, said one of their Honolulu attorneys, Richard Holcomb.
The lawsuit caught the attention of David L. Hudson Jr., a First Amendment scholar with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., who also said he wasn’t aware of any other legal battles over deleted Facebook posts.
“It’s really a cutting-edge First Amendment issue,” he said yesterday. “The key legal question would be whether the police department created a public forum … for private speech or whether the web page is government speech.”
If it’s determined to be government speech, then the government has the right to control what speech it wants to support, Hudson said.
“As good as our officers are, the reality is that they are not magical creatures who can teleport around. Your protection is your responsibility. Rely on yourself,” reads one of Baker’s deleted posts, according to an exhibit attached to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit doesn’t seek money but a change in the department’s Facebook policies and reinstatement of the deleted posts, Holcomb said. He said the group initially formed to support the right to bear arms but expanded to help Hawaii citizens with civil rights issues.
The department prohibits only speech that is “obscene, sexually explicit, racially derogatory, defamatory”; or that solicits; or is an advertisement or suggests or encourages illegal activities, the lawsuit said. The suit noted that no policies had been developed to help guide decisions made by those administering the department’s Facebook page.
Capt. Andrew Lum is named a defendant because he manages and maintains the site. “The HPD cannot comment on details regarding the pending lawsuit,” he said in a statement. “Guidelines are posted on the HPD Facebook site.”
A spokeswoman said the city didn’t comment on pending litigation.
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The First Amendment Center is an educational organization and cannot provide legal advice.
Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and in Washington, D.C. Previously, Paulson served as the editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today.
Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center and president and chief operating officer of the Diversity Institute, is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.
John Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center in 1991 with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values.
Dr. Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.
David L. Hudson Jr. is an expert in First Amendment issues who writes for firstamendmentcenter.org and for other publications. Hudson teaches law and was a scholar at the First Amendment Center.
Tiffany Villager is director/First Amendment studies at the First Amendment Center, which she joined in 1993. She also served as the center’s research manager and research coordinator, and developed the center’s library.