Chattanooga, TN—American Atheists and Bradley County and the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office have reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations of the U.S. Constitution by Bradley County and Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson.
As part of settlement agreement, the new official Bradley County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page will not be used to “promote or further any religion, religious organization, religious event or religious belief.” Additionally, the sheriff’s office has decided to not allow any comments on this Facebook page, making it an informational Facebook page only. The office’s original Facebook page was deactivated earlier this year and will be permanently deactivated.
While the county and sheriff admit to no wrongdoing under the agreement, the county will pay a total of $15,000 in damages to American Atheists and the local plaintiffs, Joshua Stevens and Jane Doe, and $26,000 in attorney’s fees. Plaintiffs were represented by attorney Perry Craft of Nashville.
“This settlement is a clear win for the plaintiffs, whose First Amendment rights to free speech and to be free of government establishment of religion were infringed upon,” said Amanda Knief, National Legal and Public Policy Director of American Atheists. We are pleased the sheriff has agreed to do the right thing by no longer using this official government social media account to promote religion.”
“What is unfortunate, is that it took a lawsuit and more than $40,000 in taxpayer money for the county and sheriff to put this common sense policy in place,” Knief said. “We would have preferred that the sheriff allow citizens the freedom to comment and interact with the sheriff’s office on the Facebook page, but we were not able to reach agreement on that during mediation.”
The anonymous Bradley County resident represented by American Atheists added, “I have always said that Constitutional rights are worth fighting for, and I am proud that when tested, I stood by that principle. It was not easy to stand up to the county sheriff and some people in my community who disagreed with me. Despite some negative backlash, I do not regret taking action against government censorship. If you don’t stand up for yourself, you risk losing your rights.”
Sheriff Watson will be allowed to maintain a personal Facebook page that is clearly marked as containing only his personal opinions and not those of the department.
The lawsuit arose in May after Sheriff Watson posted an explicitly religious Easter message on the sheriff’s office’s official Facebook page. American Atheists sent a letter to the sheriff advising against such religious messages on a government-sponsored social media site. The sheriff responded by telling a local newspaper that he intended to use his position as sheriff to proselytize. After posting the local newspaper article on the sheriff’s office’s Facebook page, commenters began criticizing the sheriff’s statements. The sheriff and employees of the sheriff’s department began deleting and blocking critical comments and users who were critical of the sheriff while leaving favorable comments on the governmental Facebook page.