A recent judgment regarding President Trump’s use of social media has increased legal liability for the Covington sheriff who routinely uses an official sheriff’s department social media account to promote Christianity, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is advising.
Last week, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump that the president’s Twitter feed is a government-run forum and that denying citizens equal access to read and post comments on his feed violated their First Amendment rights.
This decision came just a few weeks after FFRF wrote to the Covington County Commission alerting it to the unconstitutionality of Covington Sheriff Blake Turman using the department’s official Facebook page to promote his personal religion. Turman routinely posts religious messages, including religious holiday sentiments and bible verses.
Since the time of that letter, the name of the Facebook page has been changed from “Covington County Sheriffs Department” to “Covington County Sheriff Blake Turman.” Additionally, a moderator of the page has deleted a number of comments critical of the department from at least two posts on the page.
FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover has written a second letter to the commission, urging it to ensure the sheriff’s department ceases this constitutional breach.
“Because recent developments further solidify the constitutional violations taking place on the ‘Covington County Sheriff Blake Turman’ Facebook page, we repeat our request that the page be discontinued,” Grover writes. “So long as the page continues to operate, the county is exposing itself to a potential lawsuit from any county citizen who objects to the censorship of their speech and the promotion of Christianity by their local government. FFRF has represented citizens in similar situations in the past and would be more than willing to do so in this instance.”
Grover first wrote to Turman himself on June 24, detailing these constitutional issues. Turman immediately sent FFRF an intemperate response in which he invited the person who had complained to FFRF to “be a man” and claimed that “we [Christians] outnumber [FFRF]” because “there are 240 million Christians in the United States.”
Shortly after FFRF wrote its previous letter to the county, a number of citizens accessed two posts on the Sheriff's Department Facebook page and posted comments critical of this blatant endorsement of religion. A page moderator subsequently deleted several critical comments but left intact comments that expressed support for the sheriff’s department’s actions.
“Deleting citizen comments from the County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page based on their expressed opinions is viewpoint discrimination,” Grover notes. “Just as in Knight First Amendment Institute, this action violates the First Amendment rights of those who posted the comments.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation urges any Covington citizens who have had comments deleted from this Facebook page to contact FFRF.
“Officers take an oath to protect and serve all citizens, not just those who agree with their religious viewpoints,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor reminds the commission. “Using the department’s official social media to proselytize and distort public support for its illegal behavior is reprehensible.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 31,000 members across the country, including in Alabama. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.