San Diego Sheriffs Department shutters Facebook page over free speech dispute
San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore (Facebook)

The San Diego Sheriffs Department has shut down their Facebook page rather than spend time and money defending themselves against a man who claimed they were violating his First Amendment rights by deleting his comments.

According to UT San Diego, the Facebook page was removed in response to a lawsuit filed by Dimitrios Karras saying the department deleted two Facebook posts critical of Sheriff Bill Gore before banning him from commenting on the site.

The lawsuit, filed by Karras attorney Scott McMillan, maintains that sites like Facebook pages are a new forum for the public to voice their opinions and, where comment is allowed, all citizens should be able to voice their opinions.

"They must allow speech to be heard, even if it's obnoxious," said  McMillan. "Unless it's something egregious, they have limited latitude in censoring."

The lawsuit opens up legal questions over government's use of social media, and whether public officials should be able to control commentary on the sites.

"There is no doubt that the Sheriff can constitutionally regulate the comments that are made on his Facebook page," San Diego Senior Deputy County Counsel Thomas Bunton wrote in a court filing, referring to a previous court ruling stating the government "may limit the forum to certain groups or subjects" as long as it does not discriminate based upon viewpoint.

According to Bunton, Karras' comments didn't follow posting guidelines and were off topic.

In comments under a post about braking for school buses, Karras wrote about the standoff in Ruby Ridge in 1992 that resulted in the disciplining of multiple FBI agents.

San Diego Sheriff Gore was an an FBI supervisor during that period but was not among the disciplined agents.

According to court documents, the department chose to delete Facebook page "to avoid the time, expense and hassle necessary to enforce the Department's policies regarding comments."

At a hearing scheduled for Thursday, Karras is expected to ask a judge to order the department to restore his comments.

County attorneys say the matter is now moot since the page no longer exists.