By Attorney David Engler
A critic uses Facebook and Social Media to challenge government rule. The critic gains followers online. The government seeks to jail the critic.
FOUNDING FATHERS APPALLED !!!
This sounds like a rogue Mid-East nation or third world African state.
It is not.
This is happening in Trumbull County, Ohio.
A small businessman, Berry Meadows, who has run a septic installation company for many years had an argument with The Trumbull County Health Department.
TCHD is in charge of approving septic systems and responsible for approving installers. The nature of the dispute is really not important. It has been the reaction of the government to quash any dissent that is down-right scary.
Mr. Meadows runs a company called Digging Dirt, LLC. He is married to a very bright woman, Deanna, who assists in running their business. They have three beyond adorable children and believe fiercely in the Word of God. What they thought was wrong, was a decision made by TCHD in conjunction with the State of Ohio EPA, or maybe on its own, to deny a septic system that Digging Dirt believed would produce a clean effluent and cost homeowners $3000 less per installation. The Meadows believed the County had either directly or indirectly created a monopoly for one brand of septic system in the County and had cost the taxpayers of Trumbull millions of dollars.
So they took their dispute to the social media. They create a group site on Facebook called Trumbull County Septic News and it immediately gets followers. The Meadows do some digging of their own into ‘how things work’ and discover some real dirt!
They uncover what they believe to be a pattern of favors for friends of TCHD.
They fight to get public records. They sue TCHD for failure to provide the records.
They ask for records to either prove or disapprove whether the Health Commissioner actually works the hours he is contracted to provide.
It’s a sweetheart job the health Commissioner holds and he refuses to release records that would show when he shows up to work. He claims that such records pose a security risk. Mind you that we are talking about a local health department and not the NSA.
The Trumbull County Septic News starts to take off. The Meadows post the rants of the Health Commissioner, Dr. Enyeart on the website. They post video of the entire meetings.
The Meadows ask for records that show the possibility that the local Sheriff got favorable treatment for a property with a non-compliant septic system. The property is owned by the Sheriff’s son and maybe there is nothing wrong, except Mr. Meadows asked for the records.
He then asks for the records of the Board’s attorney who gets $3250 per month for a part-time gig. The records show that the Board’s attorney didn’t have to pay up front for an inspection like most citizens. Once again maybe everything is kosher with the process, but it looks messy.
What happens next is straight from China’s or Syria’s play book of how to deal with a critic:
First call him crazy to anyone that will listen.
Next do not allow him or her to speak at the public meetings.
The local board hires the Sheriff’s office to post an armed guard and stand over seemingly anyone who has the temerity to make a public record request.
Dr. Enyeart himself asks for the guard to be present at the Health Department.
And then when the subtle forms of intimidation do not work…..seek to imprison your critic.
Amazingly the very top of the Sheriff’s chain of command gets involved with the case and seeks out a customer of Digging Dirt from 2007 that had a dispute. The customer does not seek criminal charges but rightfully was claiming that they deserved a refund. They take their contract dispute to civil court and name Wells Fargo as a Defendant since they believe Wells Fargo released money in 2008 that should not have been released. But the Sheriff’s office takes a contract case that is nearly 5 years old and charges Berry Meadows with felony Theft by Deception!
The Health Department posts the newspaper article of my client’s arrest on its government website!
The high ranking Sheriff’s official then finds another customer of Digging Dirt and uses that case to file a criminal complaint for Theft by Deception.
In Ohio and every other jurisdiction Theft by Deception is used when someone promises to do something that they have no intention of ever doing or delivering something that they cannot deliver in order to get someone’s money. Digging Dirt had been doing hundreds of quality installs. This was not the scam of the door to door siding salesman taking a deposit then skipping town.
It is not coincidental that after months of posting damaging information about the Health Department and possibly the Sheriff’s office that a criminal charge is initiated, investigated and brought by the Sheriff’s office on civil matters that were very old.
What is amazing is that the local government officials could not contain themselves from understanding that their actions are nothing short of strong armed goons going out of their way to quiet opposition.
This government and others are going to have to come to grips that they need to treat their social media critics with the same deference they treat the traditional news media. I know they might like to jail a reporter or two, but it is against the law.
Why can’t they look at their great government jobs and benefits and be happy to have them, instead of risking all of it to put some small businessman out of business and in jail. Our framers of the Constitution called it the First Amendment for a reason. They didn’t think to place it eighth or fifteenth or forget to list it at all. It is the First Amendment and it guarantees that we will have free speech. Here is the entire First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Oops maybe the local Health Board forgot about petitioning of government for a redress of grievances. Get used to it government. Facebook, Twitter and blogs is part of the new press. Do not try to jail your critics. Try listening to them. Act like you understand that the truth will always come out.
Attorney David Engler