A settlement was reached today between Cobb County and James Herndon.
Herndon filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for North Georgia, Atlanta Division, when he and others were blocked from replying to posts on Sheriff Neil Warren’s Facebook page.
Herndon is a candidate for sheriff in the 2020 election.
Herndon wrote in an email announcing the settlement, “This case was never about money. It was about holding the sheriff accountable and preserving the 1st amendment rights of myself and others. This case started long before I was a sheriff candidate. We filed on Nov 19 and settled today.”
The terms of the settlement are that Herndon will receive $750 in damages, plus the county will pay $29,000 in attorney’s fees to Herndon’s lawyer. Further, Herndon and the others blocked from engagement on Warren’s Facebook page will have their right to post replies reinstated.
Reached by phone, Herndon’s attorney Gerald Weber said, “What happened was Mr. Herndon and other critics of the Cobb County sheriff’s department commented on the Facebook page. And then their comments were deleted and subsequently they were blocked so they couldn’t post it anyway on Facebook.”
Weber said that the Sheriff’s Office contends that the page is Warren’s personal Facebook page.
“It looks like it is in terms of how it’s described, but it’s not,” he said.
“There are two sheriff’s department employees, who are on the taxpayer dime, and are the monitors for that Facebook page. They’re the ones that actually did the deleting and the blocking,” he said.
“This is the page that’s used as the official Facebook page for communicating with the public about what the sheriff’s department is doing,” said Weber.
Weber said the case was similar to the one that involved Donald Trump’s Twitter account. He said that although Trump argued it was his personal account, the court concluded that it was used for official business,
“The court ultimately concluded that it was the public’s account, because he was doing government business on his Twitter page.” Weber said. “So we filed a lawsuit. We say that it’s a violation of the First Amendment.”
“The settlement unblocks everybody who was blocked previously, because of the viewpoints they expressed that were not liked by the sheriff, including Mr. Herndon, so everybody’s returned,” he said.
Herndon wrote to the Courier in an email that as of Friday evening he was still blocked, and if that continues he will refile the suit, with the settlement, signed by Warren as Exhibit A.
Response from the Sheriff’s Office
Contacted by the Courier for a response, Commander Robert Quigley emailed the following statement:
Neil Warren’s personal Facebook page is a space for him to post about his family and his life experiences including his role as elected Cobb County Sheriff. On several occasions other Facebook users posted disparaging messages, offensive images and even a pornographic video clip on Neil Warren’s Facebook page. Warren took action to block some individuals from his personal page, including former sheriff’s office employee James Herndon.
This action was appropriate based on the legal environment at that time and a review that was conducted following a complaint by the ACLU in February 2019. At no point in time was Mr. Herndon, or anyone, blocked from any official Cobb County Sheriff’s Office social media accounts, including Twitter or Instagram.
In July 2019 the United States Court of Appeals ruled that President Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account was a protected venue for free speech and that the President could not block users. Mr. Herndon took issue with how Neil Warren managed his own personal Facebook page and filed suit following the Court of Appeals ruling.
“Here is an example of how a disgruntled former employee can continue to cost taxpayers,” said Sheriff Warren. “He wanted to post angry untruthful comments on my personal social media page and had to resort to lawyers and legal fees to get his way. Definitely a waste of time and resources for all involved.”