By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Once again, Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones has something in common with a politician he greatly admires – President Donald Trump.
A federal court here Friday granted a preliminary injunction ordering Jones to unblock critics, specifically Black Lives Matter Sacramento founder Tanya Faison and former BLM organizer Sonia Lewis, from his social media pages.
Trump was also sued in 2018 when he blocked users from his infamous and very busy Twitter page.
A New York federal court ruled those were First Amendment violations, and in January of 2019, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the “interactive component” of an elected official’s page is, in effect, a public forum and people can’t be blocked because of their political point of view.
And that’s pretty much what U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley said Friday, ordering Jones to unblock Faison and Lewis, whose posts to Jones’ page were deleted and they were blocked from further posting.
The two filed suit in January of 2019 in federal court for civil rights violations – namely, blocking them from his social media pages because Jones apparently didn’t like what they said.
“I feel vindicated, and happy the judge made a decision in our favor. What this decision shows is that when you’re an elected official you don’t have a choice of which constituent you want to listen to…you have to listen to opinions you don’t necessarily agree with. But that’s your responsibility as an elected official,” said Faison.
“Scott Jones, you can’t pick and choose which citizens of Sacramento County you want to serve (but) we ALL have a right to be included in the things that shape all of our lived experiences,” said Lewis, adding:
“If the court is leaning in the direction of the community, so should Jones not just online but in his daily job responsibilities. He is in violation of my civil rights to have access to my elected official’s page and to have a voice with respects to the community he is elected to serve and in which we all live.”
According to the Faison, the “censoring started after the Sacramento County Inspector General published a report criticizing sheriff’s deputies who killed Mikel McIntyre. Unarmed, he was shot to death on the shoulder of Highway 50. One of Jones’ deputies fired 18 shots across the road as McIntyre was running away,” she said.
The county has since paid about $1.7 million in taxpayer dollars – deputies didn’t pay anything – to McIntyre’s family in a wrongful death settlement.
“Sheriff Jones responded by refusing to allow any further investigation and he locked the Inspector General out of buildings. The lockout was reported in the media and was discussed by the Board of Supervisors. When I commented on that post, he deleted my comments. Then he banned me from his page, calling it oppressive,” she said.
As upsetting as that may be to Jones, the courts have ruled that the public pages of elected are public forums, according to the lawsuit.
“The internet is an important place for the Black Lives Matter movement. We use it to share our messages, spread important news, and amplify calls for racial justice. Facebook is one of the only places we can engage with the sheriff and his supporters. Expressing our views is a part of our role as residents of Sacramento,” said Faison.
“We feel compelled to call public attention to state violence and racist policing. Whether or not the sheriff likes our message, we must have the ability to hold his office accountable. He relies on Facebook to communicate with the public; he doesn’t get to pick which constituents he wants to engage and block the rest. He’s using unfair tactics to try to silence us and shut down our movement,” she said.
There’s been bad blood between Black Lives Matter and the Sheriff (and other local law enforcement) for years, especially since unarmed Stephon Clark was shot and killed by Sacramento City Police. Sheriff choppers played a part in the killing.
And at a protest over Clark’s death, a Sheriff Dept. deputy ran over a protestor on Florin Road, and Jones – who seldom if ever releases video footage – made a point to single out “paid” protestors and attempt to show his deputies did nothing wrong.
However, the footage went national and international, embarrassing the department. There’s an outstanding civil rights lawsuit still ongoing over that incident.
“Sheriff Jones has been relentless in his pursuit to silence me and other members of the Black Lives Matter Sacramento chapter. He’s said publicly that I am an unfit leader for the Black community. He’s called for counter protesters to show up at our rallies. And he (censored) us on social media,” said Faison.
She called Jones’ social media monitoring of her and BLM “creepy.”
Judge Nunley wrote in his decision Friday that Jones was wrong when he argued in his response motion that his Facebook page was a political campaign tool not an official county page.
“Defendant (Jones) cannot escape his role as a government official simply by calling himself a public figure…A Sheriff’s central function is to represent the interests of the Sheriff’s Department…defendant posted against outside oversight of the Sheriff’s Department at least six times in a little over a month and encouraged his supporters to get involved,” said the judge in his ruling.
“Defendant also engaged in back and forth discussions about the controversy on his page, sometimes explicitly speaking on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department. Moreover, defendant informed the public about developments in the McIntyre shooting in at least one post and linked to a Sheriff’s Department press release about a separate shooting in another post,” Nunley reasoned in his 18 page decision.
Among the causes of action in the federal lawsuit is Jones’ banning of Faison and Lewis, which is, according to the suit, “not content-neutral, nor narrowly tailored to serve important government interests, nor did it leave open ample alternative channels for communication of their messages. For these and other reasons, his conduct infringed upon Plaintiffs’ rights under the First Amendment and the California Constitutions.”
The suit also notes there is “viewpoint discrimination,” and in the second cause of action says Jones deleted their comments “because of the viewpoints they expressed on that Page and the viewpoints they have expressed as members of BLM-Sacramento. Sheriff Jones’ censorship and banning of Plaintiffs based on their viewpoints violated their right to freedom of expression under the United States and California Constitutions.”
The third cause of action is “speaker-based discrimination), in that Jones banned the activists and deleted their comments because “of their identities and affiliation with BLM-Sacramento, a group which publicly criticizes Sheriff Jones.”
Finally, the suit lists a fourth cause of action as “an actual, present and justiciable controversy between Plaintiffs and defendant concerning Plaintiffs’ right to participate in public debate by posting, responding and commenting on the Sheriff Jones Facebook Page.”
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