In the fictional world of Mud Lick, Sheriff Roy tells his deputies, “Arrest anyone wearing Vol Orange on sight. We’ll make the charges stick later.” Apparently the Dickson County, Tennessee Sheriff’s Department finds this action appropriate for images they deem offensive.
A Tennessee man was arrested Friday for alleged harassment after authorities said he distributed a disrespectful photo of a law enforcement officer’s grave on social media.
Joshua Andrew Garton, 28, was arrested on suspicion of harassment and jailed in Dickson County, Tennessee, on $76,000 bond, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.
The photo shows two men who appear to be urinating on the grave of Sergeant Daniel Baker, a member of the Dickson County Sheriff’s Department killed in 2018. Baker’s alleged killer, Steven Wiggins, will finally get his day in court this July.
Joshua Garton isn’t Steven Wiggins. As of this writing, no one’s established any connection between the two men. No intent is discernible suggesting Garton shared this photo in an attempt to annoy, frighten or offend Baker’s widow.
In fact, as FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh quickly pointed out, the image is merely a doctored album cover.
The Dickson County Sheriff’s Department wasn’t the only party guilty of failing to use Google Image search correctly. Ray Crouch, the District Attorney for Dickson County, couldn’t be bothered to check either.
The bureau said by email that the investigation and arrest were done at the behest of District Attorney General Ray Crouch.
“When requested to investigate an incident by a District Attorney General, TBI agents serve as fact-finders,” said bureau spokeswoman Leslie Earhart. “The D.A. determines what, if any, charges are placed.”
Long time SJ readers probably know where this is going, but let’s spell it out for anyone new. A meme shared on Facebook attracted the attention of a DA, who found the photo so offensive he tapped Tennessee’s largest and most well-funded crime solving unit to figure out who shared it.
Sharing a meme does not constitute “harassment” under Tennessee law. Sergeant Baker can’t view this as a threat. No reasonable person could find sharing a Facebook meme as intentionally annoying or harassing anyone associated with Baker’s case.
In fact, as the Supreme Court opined in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, harassment statutes like the one used to charge Garton are unconstitutional. Since the law restricts speech based on function or purpose, it sweeps a surprising amount of protected speech under its umbrella.
If substantial protected speech falls into the realm of what the law prohibits, it is void for overbreadth. Harassment statues like Tennessee’s prohibiting speech that “annoys” or “harasses” a party criminalize a wide scope of constitutionally protected speech. Garton was charged and jailed under an unconstitutional law for speech protected by the First Amendment.
Congratulations, Dickson County. You went full Europe on speech. And as David Meyer-Lindenberg once warned us, never go full Europe on speech.
Personally, I find the meme distasteful. I think the idea of urinating on the grave of a slain police officer repugnant. Many surely share my views. None of this changes that what Garton shared on Facebook is constitutionally protected speech, and those involved with his arrest and incarceration are hopefully prepared for when someone literally makes a federal case of this matter.
Those who decry Josh Garton’s arrest would do well to take a hard look in the mirror. In an age when the average citizen cries for greater restrictions on what they deem “hate speech” and mock those principled few standing for civil liberties as “crying about freeDUMBS,” it’s surprising more haven’t been jailed because someone took offense to something posted on social media.
It’s easy to condemn the actions of law enforcement when they commit an egregious fuck up such as this. It’s far more difficult to advocate for speech we find offensive and tell others no matter how much we can’t stand that speech, it’s protected by law.
Adherence to principle is hard in a world dominated by feelings and emotion. Cases like Joshua Garton’s remind us why the law demands we set our feelings aside for liberty’s sake. Turning a blind eye gives the authoritarians who seek to curb our rights more excuses to take them away.