A lawsuit filed this week accuses the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office of illegally deleting comments and banning people from its Facebook page.
Lewis and Clark County residents Chase Berg and Deanna Anderson allege that the actions of the sheriff's office have violated their First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights.
"Plaintiffs have had their comments removed in violation of their freedoms of speech. Moreover, a few posts that LCSO removed questioned the LCSO's actions and why comments were being deleted and were banned from the page," says the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in district court in Helena.
The documents say Berg and Anderson were banned from the Facebook page on Oct. 5 for commenting on a post about the Helena Police Department's calls for service responses and saying that deleting other comments on the page was not transparent. On Oct. 10, the sheriff's office implemented a new policy that allows its Facebook administrator to "delete any posting on this site or ban any users at the discretion of the Administrator." The new policy also banned political speech about the 2018 election.
The lawsuit argues that the plaintiffs did not violate the policy and that the actions taken by the sheriff's office's Facebook page fails to protect First Amendment rights by stopping them from commenting on a popular public site run by a governmental agency.
"Defendants are acting arbitrarily with no statutory limitations, and minimizing, rather than maximizing, individual freedoms by suppressing one of the most common and modern forms of free speech and, specifically speech that is critical of the government," court documents said.
The lawsuit cites as precedent Knight First Amendment Institution at Columbia University v. Trump. That case, decided against President Donald Trump, stopped him from banning people from his Twitter page because it was determined to be a public forum and the bans violate the First Amendment.
The lawsuit also invokes the 14th Amendment, arguing that by banning users like Berg and Anderson without explanation, the sheriff's office failed to provide due process by deleting comments and banning users without a means of appeal.
Berg and Anderson are asking the sheriff's office to restore the deleted posts, to not allow anyone to be banned for political speech or remove protected speech, and to allow banned users to use the Facebook page again.
They are being represented by Scott Peterson and Robert Farris-Olsen of Morrison, Sherwood Wilson and Deola, PLLP in Helena.
When contacted by the Independent Record on Thursday, Sheriff Leo Dutton said he was unaware of the lawsuit and had not yet been served.