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Lawsuit over HPD Facebook comments could set legal precedent

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 12:46 p.m. HST, Aug 22, 2012

A lawsuit against the Honoulu Police Department over deleted posts on the department’s Facebook page could set a legal precedent, a First Amendment scholar told the Associated Press.

“It’s really a cutting edge First Amendment issue,”said David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. “The key legal question would be whether the police department created a public forum ... for private speech or whether the web page is government speech.”

If it’s determined to be government speech, the government has the right to control what speech it wants to support, he said. 

Hudson and attorneys for the plaintiffs say the lawsuit appears to be the first in the nation that deals with deleted social media posts.

A gun advocacy group, the Hawaii Defense Foundation filed the federal lawsuit Tuesday for violations of the First Amendment, claiming Honolulu police arbitrarily delete posts and ban those who make comments that are unfavorable to the department on the social media site. 

The lawsuit argues that the department’s Facebook page was created to be “a forum open to the public,” and that removing comments violates freedom of speech. The plaintiffs are the group’s president, Christopher Baker, and Derek Scammon, the group’s assistant director. Numerous comments they posted were removed without explanation, the lawsuit said, and both men were later banned from the page.

Capt. Andrew Lum is named a defendant because he manages and maintains the site. “The HPD cannot comment on details regarding the pending lawsuit,” he said in a statement.  “Guidelines are posted on the HPD Facebook site.” 

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