Former Sheriff David Clarke Wins Facebook Post Case: Free Speech Is For Everyone
By George Beck
Many members of the law enforcement community are saluting a federal jury decision on Monday, Jan. 22 siding with former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. The jury of five women and two men found, by contrary, that Clarke did not have to check his freedom of speech rights at the door when he became a government official.
“This is an important jury decision for all of us in the law enforcement community,” said law enforcement radio show host Valerie Velazquez-Stetz of Blue World Uncensored. “It’s a silver lining for so many officers whose freedom of speech on social media is often stymied by a hypocritical double standard.”
It all began in January of 2017, when Dan Black shared a flight with Clarke from Dallas to Milwaukee. According to published accounts, Black, 25, initiated a brief discussion on the tarmac in Dallas with Clarke, asking him if he was David Clarke, which Clarke acknowledged. Black shook his head and walked away. In court documents, Clarke stated Black stood in a “physically threatening manner.” Because of the many threats Clarke receives and his sense that something may be afoot including an ambush post flight, the sheriff directed deputies at the flight arrival point to question Black, and then release him. It’s commonly referred to as a field interview or Terry stop.
Black posted about the incident on social media that evening and filed a formal complaint over allegations about how he was treated. Clarke responded on Facebook posting a photo of Black and calling him a “Snowflake.”
Clarke’s defense attorney Charles Bohl argued it was nothing more than an “unfriendly internet spat” and that Clarke has the very same First Amendment rights Black was claiming Clarke violated.
Black alleged that Clarke’s posts were threatening and discouraged him from ever filing a grievance against a public official, and that this occurrence has caused him harm, testifying among other grievances that he hasn’t been able to find a new job since this incident now defines him online. Several of his friends testified that he was subsequently paranoid.
In spite of his “paranoia,” Black was featured in numerous local TV news interviews and was a featured speaker at an anti-Trump rally where he had a banner with an image of Sheriff Clarke on it. Discovery produced 18 emails from his attorney to local news outlets in an apparent attempt to generate publicity. That doesn’t sound like someone who went into hiding in fear.
The jury didn’t buy Black’s claims. They found that Clarke’s postings were hardly enough to silence Black’s First Amendment rights to future speech.
“Justice was well served with the jury’s decision supporting Sheriff David Clarke’s free speech rights,” Lt. Randy Sutton (Ret.) informed Blue Magazine. “ Social media has often been weaponized against law enforcement. This decision was a breath of fresh air. This was one jury that wasn’t fooled by a political narrative.”
“The jury’s decision made clear that wearing a badge does not diminish your constitutional rights to free speech,” former NYC Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik told Blue Magazine.
When reached by phone, Sheriff Clarke told Blue Magazine, “The trial judge alluded in an earlier decision on summary judgment before trial where he dismissed most of the suit before the trial began that I too enjoy First Amendment rights, and being a public official doesn’t mean I have to give them up. He left in place this one element for a jury to decide. Obviously they saw this as a no brainer. The truth won out here as it often does.”
George Beck is a police detective, award-winning journalist, and managing editor of Blue Magazine. He’s a Ph.D. candidate at Drew University. He is the author of The Killer Among Us and several other books.