Man Arrested For Criticizing Police Department Online Wins Lawsuit

Thomas Smith was arrested in 2012 for criticizing his local police department on Facebook. The comments Smith made were profanity-laced, but didn’t include any threats or otherwise unprotected speech. Smith’s primary point in his comments was that the local police department was racist.

Other Facebook users posted critical messages toward the police department, even before Thomas made his opinions public. Someone at the police department deleted the unfavorable comments while leaving the favorable ones.

“Smith then chimed in. He posted two Facebook comments echoing the view that the police were racist, and otherwise expressing his displeasure with how the officers handled the matter.”

Smith’s comments were directed towards the Arena, Wisconsin, police department. The Arena police department maintains a Facebook page that other Facebook users can engage with. An update on a call involving several African-American burglary suspects was posted on the department Facebook page. That update is the one that Smith commented on.

As Ars Technica mentioned, the police department considered Smith’s comments “fighting words,” and decided they wanted to arrest him. A police officer called Thomas and asked him if he had posted the comments online. He confirmed that he had posted the comments and said he didn’t regret posting them.

“I put it on there, I don’t regret it and I mean it.”

While “fighting words” may not be protected speech under the First Amendment, the words that Smith posted were far from fighting words. If Thomas had been in close proximity to a police officer and was directing the comments toward the police officer, they most likely would have been considered fighting words.

Though his critical comments were completely protected by the First Amendment, that didn’t stop the authorities from charging him with a crime. Smith was charged with unlawful use of computerized communication and disorderly conduct.

“On August 10, 2012, the Iowa County District Attorney’s Office filed a criminal complaint charging Smith with unlawful use of a computerized communication system and disorderly conduct.”

Smith was found guilty of the crimes by a jury. He was sentenced to one year of probation and 25 hours of community service. The conviction was appealed, and the previous decision was thrown out.

After getting his conviction cleared, Smith brought a lawsuit against the Arena police department. The suit asked for compensation for the emotional distress, loss of liberty, legal expenses, and other inconveniences Thomas Smith had to endure. The lawsuit was successful, and Smith was awarded $35,000 in the settlement.

[Photo by Eston / Flickr]