ACLU still wants change for Henry County Police Department’s Facebook practices

The Henry County Police Department typically uses its Facebook page to circulate BOLO bulletins and communicate official department messages to the public. The ACLU of Georgia would like to see Henry County re-write its social media policy to prevent the department from blocking Facebook users on the basis of their viewpoint. County staff say that the policy doesn’t provide for such action. (Photo: Facebook)

McDONOUGH — The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has no plans to take on the Henry County Police Department over its blocking of certain users from the department’s Facebook page, but legal director Sean Young said the organization is “always considering our options.”

In December, the ACLU sent a letter threatening legal action against the PD demanding that it stop censoring critics who post on its official government Facebook page. The organization wrote to the department on behalf of one Facebook user blocked in 2015. In a press release one month later, the ACLU announced that the individual was unblocked.

“In my book the matter is still open, and unless the Police Department is going to say that they will no longer infringe on the First Amendment by blocking the comments of those with whom they disagree, we will be considering all of our options,” Young told the Herald.

It appears that not only one individual was unblocked from department’s Facebook page, but all 220 identified by the ACLU’s client through an Open Records Act request. Most of the people included in the list were blocked by the Henry County PD prior to 2016.

In response to a request for comment on the matter, county staff returned a screenshot of the department’s Facebook page, dated Dec. 27, that shows that no users were blocked. A records administrator said that Henry County had not responded directly to the ACLU “due to the fact that they have not sent us an official letter.”

The Dec. 18 letter was shared on the ACLU’s website and, according to the organization, sent via certified mail to the Henry County Police Department. The ACLU received receipt of delivery on Dec. 20.

“It was my belief that they never sent the letter,” County Attorney Patrick Jaugstetter said.

Young said his organization commends the HCPD for taking the first step to unblock users, but he’d like to see the department go further and prevent anyone from being wrongfully blocked in the future. 

The Henry County Board of Commissioners adopted a social media policy last year to define guidelines for engaging with citizens on the county’s social media pages, including the Police Department page. The policy, which is posted for public view on the Henry County Government’s Facebook page, states that the county reserves the right to “ban or revoke posting privileges of commenters/posters who repeatedly post comments that violate this policy.”

“Several sites welcome your comments; however, please note that the county’s social media sites are moderated, online discussion and/or information sites and not intended as a traditional public or limited-purpose public forum,” the policy reads in part. Violations include posts unrelated to the purpose and topical scope of the page, obscenity, incitement to imminent lawless action, fighting words and defamatory speech.

It does not specifically address posts of a critical nature.

Young said that regardless of the policy’s language, his organization is considering the Police Department’s practices.

“The way the First Amendment works, you look at the government’s actions and not their words,” he said. “The bottom line is that they opened their government Facebook to public comment, and having done that they can’t delete comments because they disagree with their viewpoint.”

The ACLU said it is willing to work with any government entity to fine-tune proposed social media policy.

“Democracy is messy, it’s passionate, and the government has no business enforcing a civility code on free speech,” Young said. “People will get offended. If people aren’t getting offended, then our democracy isn’t working. The marketplace of ideas needs to remain free and open so that everyone’s viewpoint can be thoroughly considered. Censorship is anathema to the First Amendment.”

County spokeswoman Melissa Robinson said in response the policy “does not provide for discriminatory blocking individuals due to their viewpoints. Henry County Government welcomes open communication and values the role of social media in that communication.”

Editor's Note: This story has been modified from a previous version to correct that the Henry County social media policy was adopted in 2017. 

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Public safety reporter Chelsea Prince joined the Henry Herald and Clayton News Daily in 2016. She is a graduate of Emory University.

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