Former deputy was blocked on Facebook. Now he’s suing Lexington sheriff’s department

A former Lexington County deputy is suing Sheriff Jay Koon and the county sheriff’s department for blocking him and his wife on Facebook.

Eddie and Amanda Richardson filed a federal lawsuit in district court in Columbia on Wednesday. The suit alleges Koon and the sheriff’s department blocked the Richardsons from publicly commenting or sending messages on the sheriff’s department’s Facebook page.

The Richardsons allege the block is a violation of their First Amendment rights, according to the complaint, and the couple is seeking damages.

Eddie Richardson worked as a Lexington County deputy for seven years, and was also a contract officer with the Pelion Police Department and the University of South Carolina, according to the lawsuit.

In August 2016, RIchardson responded to a reported burglary and was “violently” struck by the suspected getaway car. Richardson, who shot and killed the suspect, suffered “severe” injuries to his spine and hip and medically retired.

Soon thereafter, Lexington County stopped providing Richardson health insurance, despite Koon asking county council to grant Richardson’s request to continue health insurance coverage as if he were still working for the department.

Richardson didn’t meet agency requirements to qualify for insurance through the state Public Employee Benefit Authority.

As a result, Amanda Richardson left her job to care for her husband, the lawsuit says. The former deputy became active in an advocacy group called “The Wounded Blue.”

In October 2017, the county sheriff’s department posted information about a $500 sign-on bonus to attract new deputies. Eddie Richardson posted a comment:

“That’s a great idea. But it would be a good idea to instead of doing bonuses, put the money into a fund to take care of wounded officers,” he wrote.

Richardson’s comment was deleted and he was blocked from commenting, according to the complaint.

Later, Amanda Richardson made a comment, saying the department should not block users from its page, especially her husband. Her comment was also deleted and she was blocked from the page, the lawsuit says.

While blocked, the Richardsons were able to read content and share posts made by the sheriff’s department, but they could not make comments, “like” posts or send messages to the page.

Prickly social media moments have come into view recently, as more people who have been blocked by public officials are going to court — and winning. Rep. Neal Collins of Pickens County was threatened with a lawsuit by Tom Fernandez — the lawyer representing the Richardsons — after Collins blocked three constituents from his official Facebook page.

“This is a warning shot from me to all these representatives, and probably a warning shot from anyone who loves the First Amendment to all of these lawmakers,” Fernandez recently told The State.

Fernandez also sued the South Carolina Department of Transportation for blocking him from commenting on its Facebook page, the Post & Courier reported last year.

Multiple courts have ruled in favor of citizens — saying online forums are public spaces and people deserve free-speech protections when interacting in them.

The Richardson lawsuit also alleges that Koon and the sheriff’s department “permit retaliation against individuals” for exercising free speech, and do not “properly” investigate the complaints of citizens who feel they are being retaliated against for speaking out.

The Richardsons are requesting damages and reasonable fees and costs, a declaration that Koon and the sheriff’s department acted in an unconstitutional manner and an injunction barring the defendants from blocking users.

Richardson and a spokesperson for the sheriff’s department declined to comment on the lawsuit. Fernandez could not be reached to comment for this story.