Jefferson County settles social media lawsuit

Policy changes to follow allegation of First Amendment violation

PORT TOWNSEND — The Jefferson County commissioners have agreed to change the county’s social media policy as part of a settlement with Jim Scarantino.

Scarantino filed a lawsuit alleging the government agency violated his First Amendment rights by deleting his comments and blocking him from commenting on the county’s Facebook page.

The settlement, which also includes $12,500 to cover Scarantino attorney Greg Overstreet’s legal fees, lays out policy changes and additional oversight internally over the Facebook page from the county’s side.

“This case has set a precedent in Washington that other state, county and municipal governments are likely to follow,” Scarantino said on Wednesday in a post to his website, “Port Townsend Free Press,” a self-described online newspaper.

The county’s Facebook page, “Jefferson County, WA Government,” was created in October 2019 and the original social media policy was adopted in March 2020.

The initial lawsuit was filed in November in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington after Scarantino realized he was unable to post comments on Nov. 11, and that a comment he wrote on Sept. 10 on a COVID-19 post was deleted, according to court documents.

The commissioners unanimously agreed to settle with Scarantino on Monday afternoon after an hour-long executive session.

“It brought to light some problems about the way the county Facebook page was managed,” said Kate Dean, commission chair, on Monday.

“We took this very seriously and did an investigation that revealed some inappropriate banning and blocking on our Facebook page.”

The investigation revealed “a lack of internal controls” around the social media page, and the county is working to address them, Dean said.

“We will be working up changes of policy and more oversight moving forward,” she said.

No personal information or private information was shared during the investigation process, Dean added.

District 3 Commissioner Greg Brotherton said the county created a social media policy and the Facebook page to increase transparency and the dialogue between the public and county commissioners.

“And this is a stumbling block that is on our shoulders as we move forward,” Brotherton said.

The settlement requires the county to make immediate changes to its policy regarding the management of the page.

“Authorized agents shall not restrict individuals from interacting with county-sponsored social media accounts. For purposes of this policy, ‘restrict’ includes both blocking and hiding comments,” the settlement documents said.

If the person in charge of the social media account believes someone should be restricted from interacting with the page, they’re required to talk with the Central Services Director before doing so, the settlement said.

When determining if an individual should be restricted, the director has to consider whether restricting is allowed through applicable laws, what the nature of the incident prompting the restriction discussion was, if the restriction would discriminate certain viewpoints and if other actions could be taken to stop or prevent further violations without restricting the individual, the settlement said.

If the director does agree to restricting a comment, it must be documented, such as with a screenshot of the data prompting the restriction and the reason for the restriction.

The director also is required to audit the social media accounts every six months to ensure they’re compliant with the new policies, the settlement said.

Scarantino said the lawsuit wasn’t about money but about how he felt his constitutional rights guaranteed by the First Amendment were violated due to the censorship on a public forum, he said in the Wednesday post.

“I never sought monetary compensation for violation of my civil rights, but my lawyer does need to be paid,” he said. “We kept our fees and costs down. Punishing the county economically was not the goal.

“Changing policy to bring it into compliance with the Bill of Rights was the reason for the lawsuit. We got what we wanted. Both attorneys did a good job. The county commission wisely listened to their lawyer,” he said.

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Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected]

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