Civil Liberties

Settlement Victory Over San Diego Sheriff's Facebook Page Censorship

Dimitrios Kassas of Ares Armor Accepts a $20 Settlement Plus Legal Fees.


In October I wrote about Ares Armor (a weapon kit seller) owner Dimitrios Karras suing San Diego over its sheriff's department censorship. From my original reporting:

Dimitrios Karras, who runs a weapon kit firm called Ares Armor, yesterday sued William Gore, sheriff of San Diego County, the county itself, and unnamed administrators of the department's Facebook page in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. Ares' dedicated website about the suit.

Sheriff Gore was, in his previous career with the FBI, one of the principals on the scene during the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1993, which ended with the murder by the FBI of an unarmed woman, Vicki Weaver, who was at the time holding an infant child. (See Reason's 1993 feature story by Alan Bock, "Ambush at Ruby Ridge.") Gore's role in Ruby Ridge has made him a target for many still outraged by the government's behavior during the incident….

The suit further argues that the manner in which the comments were deleted, with no chance of discussion or recourse, violated his rights to due process. He further claims violations of California state constitutional free speech guarantees. 

As Karras wrote in an email to me, stating his complaint in layman's terms:

A government entity that uses tax dollars to set up and maintain a Facebook page as a designated public forum cannot use more tax dollars to then violate the 1st amendment rights of speakers in that designated public forum through arbitrary censorship.

Imagine if you were told that because the government owned a sidewalk, you were forbidden from criticizing them while walking down it. Then further imagine that they use tax dollars to hire a security guard to ensure that you may never walk down the sidewalk again because they previously found the words you spoke to be "uncivil".

Last week, Karras accepted a $20 settlement, plus around $23,000 in legal fees, in the case. The Facebook page in question has been gone for months and seems likely to stay gone. Karras says he wasn't eager to financially harm his home county; he just wanted to strike a blow against government censorship.

Karras tells me that "I demanded at the very beginning of the settlement talks that I only want to be paid $20 for myself. I did not want the message to be muddled with financial gain." He thinks the attempt to censor discussion of Gore's role in Ruby Ridge is "one of those things where they are so afraid of actual truth" that attempting to hide it just got more people talking about it. Karras thinks it likely their censorship attempts on Facebook did more to spread that information than merely letting the comments sit on the page would have.

San Diego Union Tribune reported on the settlement, with this interesting comment from sheriff's spokeswoman Janet Caldwell:

"I am a strong believer in First Amendment rights," Caldwell said. "I never said that the ugly things he said couldn't be said, I just said not on our website, not on our page."

With that page legitimately seen as a space created by a government agency, that's exactly the point at issue: can the government create/manage a space where the First Amendment doesn't apply? And it was clearly a point the sheriff's department was not confident it could win on.

As Karras said this morning, killing the Facebook page rather than letting comments they didn't like remain is like cancelling city-sponsored Town Hall meetings because they don't like what citizens choose to say at them and resist being selectively censored.

ReasonTV interviewed Karras last year about some of his other legal troubles with ATF raids on his business, seeking information about his customers: