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City of Elkhart, Martinsville police facing lawsuits after deleting Facebook posts

October 10, 2016

After preventing local residents from commenting on their official Facebook pages, the city of Elkhart and the Martinsville Police Department are being sued for alleged violations of citizens’ First Amendment rights.

The ACLU of Indiana filed lawsuits against the two municipal entities Friday on behalf of Richard Wolf, Elkhart, and Carole Bare, formerly of Martinsville, after they were blocked from the Elkhart city and Martinsville police Facebook pages last year.

Wolf, who the ACLU described Friday as an advocate for people with disabilities, was blocked from the city of Elkhart’s Facebook page in 2015 after he posted concerns on the page about perceived violations of the American with Disabilities Act at the Lerner Theatre in Elkhart. Specifically, Wolf accused the theater of not having enough accessible parking for disabled customers. According to a Friday release from the ACLU, Wolf’s comments were removed and he was blocked from posting on the Facebook page.

Similarly, Bare, who now lives in Sullivan, posted criticism of the Martinsville Police Department on the department’s Facebook page last fall and was subsequently blocked from posting additional comments on the page. Her original post was also removed, according to the ACLU.

In the suits, which were filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend division against Elkhart and in the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis division against the city of Martinsville, Wolf and Bare contend that blocking them from posting on government-run social media is censorship and is in violation of their First Amendment rights to free speech.

“When a government entity opens up a space for public comment, it cannot regulate those comments based upon someone’s viewpoint,” Jan Mensz, ACLU of Indiana staff attorney said in a Friday statement. “A citizen’s right to criticize their government is at the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect, and the municipalities, in these cases, violated that right.”

The ACLU previously filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of Kymberly Quick and Deborah Mays-Miller, two Beech Grove residents whose Facebook posts that were critical of Beech Grove and its police department were taken down. The city eventually settled that suit, with each of the plaintiffs receiving nearly $7,500 each in costs and attorney fees.

Vlado Vranjes, corporation counsel for the city of Elkhart, said Monday that he was aware of the filing, but that the city had not yet been served with the suit. Once Vranjes is able to review the suit, the city will file a response, he said.

Martinsville Police Chief Matt Long, who was sworn in as chief in late September, said he was not aware of the suit. Long said he was familiar with Bare, but had not heard anything about the 2015 Facebook incident involving her since he became chief. Martinsville city attorney Dale Coffey also said he had not seen the suit as of noon Monday.

The cases are Richard Wolf v. City of Elkhart, Indiana, 3:16-cv-00690, and Carol Bare v. City of Martinsville, Indiana, 1:16-cv-2683.

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