Sheriff Eric Watson confirmed Friday he will “seriously consider” moving ahead with a counter lawsuit against the plaintiffs who have filed a lawsuit against him, and against Bradley County, …
Sheriff Eric Watson confirmed Friday he will “seriously consider” moving ahead with a counter lawsuit against the plaintiffs who have filed a lawsuit against him, and against Bradley County, concerning postings of a religious nature on the Bradley County Sheriff's Office Facebook page.
The first-term sheriff told the Cleveland Daily Banner, if such a counter suit is filed, it will also come in response to accusations that some of the Facebook postings were removed in violation of the First Amendment which protects freedom of speech.
Watson’s comments come as the identity of the “Jane Doe” listed in the lawsuit, along with American Atheists Inc., has apparently been revealed due to an error by the plantiff’s counsel.
The lawsuit against Bradley County and Watson was filed in U.S. District Court by American Atheists Inc. and “Jane Doe,” who according to the suit, “has lived in and has resided in Bradley County, Tennessee for more than a decade.”
According to court records, “Jane Doe” is apparently identified as Lois Crawford. Those records gave a phone number, but did not specify a mailing address.
The records posted on the U.S. District Court’s website were phone logs from the office of Dr. Lindsay Hathcock, executive assistant to the county mayor.
The Cleveland Daily Banner had requested copies of those logs Friday under the Freedom of Information Act; however, the plaintiff’s attorney filed a motion to prevent the logs from being released, saying it would expose Jane Doe’s identity.
In filing the motion to a U.S. District Court judge, plantiff attorney Perry A. Craft of Donelson, Tenn. posted the logs — without redacting them — as part of his exhibit to the court in an effort to make the case that allowing the phone logs to be released would reveal Doe’s identity.
Craft later made a successful attempt to have the exhibit sealed, but the court did not issue a prohibitive order against anyone revealing the information who may have seen it.
Attempts by the Banner to contact Crawford, the apparent “Jane Doe,” on Saturday at the number recorded on the phone logs produced an unidentified woman who told the reporter he had “reached a wrong number.”
On Friday, Watson addressed the lawsuit issue at an inaugural sheriff’s luncheon and later in an interview with the Cleveland Daily Banner. His comments at the Cleveland Country Club gathering — which followed the same format as past events that he used to hold as a state legislator — came after state Rep. Kevin Brooks announced that Lee University graduate Matt Sharp, who currently works for the Alliance for Defending Freedom, had called the BCSO “to offer his full support, counsel and advice” to Watson and the county “without charge to the county taxpayers for defending our actions.”
Sharp was one of the lead counsels in defending students’ rights to have prayers at the beginning of football games in Tennessee.
This all occurred on the same day that counsel for the plaintiffs mounted a quick challenge to the Cleveland Daily Banner’s attempts to identify the “Jane Doe” who is seeking monetary damages in the lawsuit.
“It has come to a point I can’t even keep up with the positive and ongoing images, texts and emails we have received supporting this effort in standing up for our religious freedom,” Watson told the Banner on Friday. “I am up until 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning responding.”
The sheriff took down his BCSO Facebook page Friday as “a way to protect evidence,” but is maintaining his secondary “Sheriff Eric Watson” Facebook page to keep communications with the public open.
Watson has freely admitted to having removed some of the postings because of their “vile nature” and being “unsuitable for a family-friendly website.”
“I still defend those actions,” he said. “There are different ways things can be taken off Facebook. If it uses any profanity it's automatically deleted. Users of Facebook can flag comments and if Facebook gets so many of those, they come down until they have a chance to review the complaint. Sometimes, Facebook just deletes it because it violates their policy. And, we can delete and the person who posted it can delete it as well.”
“I am very much thinking about a counter lawsuit,” he said. "As an individual, I fully support a counter suit against anyone who gives false information on another individual or an agency. And I will, and am going, to consider a counter suit.”
Watson said the response has “been enormous.”
“People have uplifted our stance,” he said. “I haven't had one citizen from Bradley County come up to me or send a negative response concerning this. Dozens and dozens of churches in the county have contacted me directly and indirectly to show support and wanting to do special services in support of me and my office. The citizens of the county have shown a lot of love toward me for this.”
He said his belief in Jesus Christ is long held and “is nothing new.”
“In my history of serving the public since 2006 as an elected official, in both capacities as state legislator and Bradley County sheriff, I have posted numerous items about religious activities,” Watson said.” I have never been condemned or challenged because of it. The challenges to this office have become more numerous since April.”
“I sang gospel music for many years and, when I ran for this office, I was very open about my Christian beliefs,” Watson. “And, I still will be when I am not sheriff.”
Referring to the “Jane Doe” lawsuit, Watson also believes it is unfair for a person to sue the county for monetary damages behind a cloak of anonymity.
“The citizens of this county deserve to know who is trying to take their money,” Watson said.
The process through which the Banner obtained the apparent “Jane Doe’s” name was a complicated one.
Within the lawsuit filed by American Atheists Inc., it describes a phone call by “Jane Doe” to Hathcock.
It says that “Doe,” while “revealing her real name,” talked to Hathcock about the BCSO allegedly deleting the posts she had made on the BCSO’s Facebook page using her pseudonym account.”
The Banner contacted Bradley County Attorney Crystal Freiberg Friday and asked to see those phone logs.
A “Freedom of Information” request was submitted by a Banner reporter and given to Freiberg who said she believed nothing in the lawsuit prohibited such a request.
She contacted attorney Thomas LeQuire who is representing Bradley County in the American Atheists lawsuit.
LeQuire asked for copies of the request and the phone logs being requested in order to inform counsel for the plaintiffs of the action about to be taken.
The Banner reporter was told LeQuire was attempting to make that contact and it could be a few hours.
When the reporter checked back later Friday, it was learned counsel for the plaintiffs — Perry Craft — had filed an “emergency motion to keep identity of Jane Doe confidential.”
“The reason for this emergency motion is that Defendant Bradley County counsel has received a public records request for logs of telephone calls that would reveal plaintiff Jane Doe’s name and identity,” the motion reads. “Defendant County states it will comply with the request unless restrained by Court.”
“Unless the Court acts,” the motion continued, “Plaintiff Jane Doe will be subjected to ridicule and possible retaliation if her identity and name are disclosed.”
Published verbatim as it was filed, the motion continued, “Moreover, others post messages in local Bradley County media uttered death threats or sought to intimidate or threaten Plaintiff Jane Doe merely because she is exercising her First Amendment rights, which are not popular in Bradley County.”
The Banner reporter was informed counsel was trying to find a judge to hear the motion.
In the meantime, the reporter logged on to “Pacer.gov,” the website of the U.S. District Court where all filings and exhibits are posted.
Included with the motion filed were several exhibits, including the phone logs which were uncensored and revealed Jane Doe’s apparent identity.
Attorney Craft called the reporter during this time and said he was “not trying to tell you how to do your business, but the court is going to rule any minute.”
The reporter told Craft the logs were posted on a public government website and now were in the public domain.
Craft repeated the judge was about to rule on the motion.
A short time later, Craft filed a second emergency motion requesting that "the previously filed Exhibit I to the Emergency Motion was inadvertently not filed under seal,” and asked it be removed from the public record and filed under seal and that the Court order that Jane Doe's identity not be disclosed or revealed by any party or any person who has seen it absent further order of the Court.”
Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Phillips then granted the plaintiff's motion and cited “defendants are hereby restrained from providing any information that would reveal the name or identity of plaintiff Jane Doe pending further action of the Court.”
Phillips later posted a second order granting the second motion “only to the extent Exhibit 1 to Document 13 [the phone logs] shall be sealed pending further orders of the Court.”
That second order did not order Jane Doe’s identity “not be disclosed or revealed by any party or any person who has seen it,” as requested in the second motion.
Those phone logs, which were attached as an exhibit to keep Jane Doe's identity hidden, do show a call was received by [Lindsay] Hathcock from a person identifying herself as Lois Crawford, along with her phone number, whose call was concerning her complaint that the BCSO had blocked her postings from the BCSO Facebook page.
The Banner contacted Richard Hollow, legal counsel for the Tennessee Press Association, who advised “the horse is already out of the barn.”
“The law in the United States and the state of Tennessee is clear when it states that when a newspaper obtains information which is otherwise confidential in a legal manner, it cannot be constitutionally prohibited from printing it,” Hollow said.
He added that any attempt to enjoin the Banner from printing the information “which was lawfully obtained, would be considered prior restraint and unconstitutional.”
Hollow said the judge’s order does not enjoin any third parties, only the defendants in the case.
“The county did not provide any information,” Hollow said. “Pacer.gov, the public information website of the U.S. District Court, did.”
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