The former police chief of Knightstown and now a candidate for the town council is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Knightstown for banning him and more than 20 other community members from posting comments on the local police department’s Facebook page.
Christopher Newkirk, who served as the Knightstown chief of police until he resigned in July 2020, claims he and at least 25 others had their First Amendment rights violated when they were not only prohibited from commenting on the police department’s Facebook page but also had their previous comments removed.
According to the complaint filed in the Southern Indiana District Court, the town has a “adopted a practice or policy” of banning people from the Facebook page when their comments “reflect poorly on the Town of the Police Department” but will allow those posting favorable messages to have continued access.
Newkirk is seeking an injunction to compel the town to remove the current bans on commenting and prevent future bans ‘based on the viewpoints” the Facebook users express.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana is representing plaintiff in the lawsuit, Christopher Newkirk, on his own behalf and on behalf of a class of those similarly situated, v. Town of Knightstown, Indiana, 1:21-cv-465.
“The First Amendment protects people, who regardless of their views, attempt to hold the government accountable through expression,” said Gavin M. Rose, ACLU of Indiana Senior Attorney. “Knightstown’s practice of silencing citizens on Facebook who are critical of the police department’s actions or policies is unconstitutional.”
Contacted Monday afternoon, the town of Knightstown said it had no comment on the lawsuit.
Newkirk served as the chief of the Knightstown Police Department until he resigned in July 2020. In Facebook posts at that time, he cited disagreements with some Knightstown elected officials as precipitating his decision to step down and he accused town attorney Gregg Morelock of offering him a “one-time lump sum as part of an agreement for my resignation and my silence.”
According to The Courier Times, Newkirk was first placed on administrative leave and asked to complete a fitness of duty exam October 2019. He was reinstated the following month. However, Newkirk again had to step aside in 2020 after an injury to his shoulder forced him to take a medical leave. When his pick for interim chief was overturned by the Knightstown Town Council, about 10 officers, primarily reserves, resigned in June.
Newkirk ran an unsuccessful campaign to be a Henry County Commissioner in 2020 and, according to his Facebook page, is now a candidate for the Knightstown Town Council.
The lawsuit highlights Newkirk’s response to an October 2020 post by the Knightstown police department about getting new decals on its squad cars.
He said the decals were under warranty and that while he was police chief, he had made arrangements to have the logos on the vehicles replaced for free. The department replied the company that had made the original decals had not responded to its inquiries.
Newkirk then posted he had bought 400 yard signs from that company, “never ever had an issue reaching him” and included a notification to Mikel Knepley, the company owner. Subsequently, Knepley made a comment, saying he had not been contacted by the police department.
After the exchange, Newkirk got booted from the police department’s Facebook page. He then filed a public records request and found that 26 Facebook users had been banned from commenting between the time he resigned July and Dec. 22, 2020.
Newkirk was also able to obtain copies of the comments made by the banned users. He could not determine which messages led to the users being banned but, according to the lawsuit, many of the comments were critical of the police department or supportive of his tenure as police chief. Also, many of the banned users posted comments that supported the police department or its officers.
Yet, once users were prohibited from posting on the Facebook page, all their previous comments were taken down.
“…while Mr. Newkirk is able to view the Police Department’s Facebook page and any ‘comments’ made on that page from Facebook users who have not been ‘banned,’ he believes strongly in full and open debate on public issues and would like to be able to view ‘comments’ previously made by ‘banned’ users that have been removed from the Police Department’s Facebook page by virtue of the users being ‘banned,’” the complaint states. “His inability to view these ‘comments’ impinges on his right, cognizable under the First Amendment to receive information.”