Atheists sue sheriff for alleged censorship, religious messaging

BCSO-w-051216American Atheists along with a resident of Bradley County, Tenn., filed suit in federal district court in Eastern Tennessee Monday against Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson for alleged violations of the First Amendment.

The organization states that the purpose of the suit is to stop the sheriff’s policy of censoring comments that are negative or at odds with his personal religious beliefs and to restore residents’ access to the sheriff office’s Facebook page.

On March 28, 2016, American Atheists receive a complaint about a proselytizing Easter message that Sheriff Watson had posted on the official Bradley County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) Facebook page. American Atheists sent a warning letter to the sheriff about the post and cited other examples of inappropriate religious messaging on the department’s official social media. On April 3, the sheriff posted an article about the letter and his response on the BCSO Facebook page.

American-Atheists-bannerAmerican Atheists soon began receiving complaints that comments criticizing the sheriff’s statements on religion were being deleted and that people were being blocked from posting on the Facebook page. Jane Doe (a pseudonym) is one of the persons who contacted American Atheists about her deleted comments and blocked access. On April 5, American Atheists sent a second letter to Sheriff Watson about the complaints and asking for the BCSO social media policy.

A spokesman for American Atheists stated that the department has continued deleting comments beyond those that are obscene or pose a threat to public safety and continued blocking some past visitors.

“This lawsuit is about protecting the community’s First Amendment right to speak out about its elected officials,” said American Atheists’ National Legal Director, Amanda Knief. “The BCSO had no problem with public comments until they were critical of the sheriff or of his proselytizing at work. But the government doesn’t get to silence speech it doesn’t like, even if that speech is negative, unflattering, and disrespectful of the sheriff’s religion.”

American Atheists and Jane Doe are seeking a restraining order preventing censorship of social media comments and preventing the use of government social media for the sheriff to proselytize.

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