Ex-Dougherty County deputy sues for $500,000 over being fired for racially charged social posting

Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul is being sued by a former deputy for alleged First and 14th Constitutional Amendment violations. (Staff Photo: Jon Gosa)

ALBANY — Former Dougherty County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Frank James Harris has filed a $500,000 lawsuit against current Dougherty Sheriff Kevin Sproul for alleged First and 14th Constitutional Amendment violations, according to attorney James Finkelstein.

Reports indicate that Harris’ employment with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Office was terminated in January 2016 after he posted a racially charged Facebook post on his personal social media page.

“When we looked at the social media site when this first came out, we totally 110 percent felt like we were in the right for the actions we took,” Sproul said. “When we received the ante litem notice (indicating a pending lawsuit), our attorney told us not to even respond because he didn’t have any grounds to stand on and that we were completely within policy.”

According to Finkelstein, Harris’ attorney, the former deputy’s termination violated his right of free speech and violated his right of equal protection under the law.

Finkelstein writes in his Superior Court complaint that the “plaintiff’s Facebook posts expressed political opinions, which are protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiff was terminated for expressing his political opinions. Plaintiff shows that similarly situated white employees of the Defendant who expressed political opinions on social media, including Facebook, were not disciplined by the Defendant.”

Harris is seeking the restoration of his job, as well as back pay, $250,000 for general damages and $250,000 for punitive damages, according to Finkelstein.

“I think you have to understand the context of the political season,” Finkelstein said. “White racists had been emboldened by the Republican nominee for president to come out of the woodwork, and the rise of racism and xenophobia in this country is what he (Harris) was referring to (in the Facebook post). I think that was very clear. So in some sense, I think you could refer to this as being anti-racist.”

Finkelstein argues that Harris’ comments were protected by the First Amendment. The Dougherty Sheriff’s Office, however, requires all employees to sign and abide by a contractual policy and procedures agreement that states, “Staff members are prohibited from using social media or social networking while on-duty, and staff that choose to maintain or participate in social media or social networking platforms while off-duty shall conduct themselves with professionalism and in such a manner that will not reflect negatively upon the agency or its mission. Any posting that detracts from the agency’s mission will be considered a direct violation of that policy.”

While employed as a deputy for the Dougherty Sheriff’s Office, Harris posted the following (The post contains grammatical errors and some language that may be offensive):

“Hello!!! Good citizens. I would like to share something with you this day. A while back, I was conversing with some of my white brothers that claimed to be christians(?) we was talking about race prejudices, religion, politics and many other things. Now! There are many who might be upset with the president for allowing refugees in our country. Hell! I say to these people. “Stop being afraid” they say: let the past be the past. We all know that everything the white man got, he stole!!! They say we should forgive and forget. I say! Hell Nall! Their ancestors has brought sham to their off spring by kidnapping, tape, murder and amung other unconstitutional things against human dignity. The young white generation need to understand one of many things. “Their ancestors has never been kidnapped, rape, murder or taken from their original state of being. They want to talk against moosilums and any other religious groups that they feel is unjust. Their ancestors has more blood on their hands than any other religion. Don’t get me wrong. I am not up for any mistreatmen of any human life. Let me ask you something young white America. How many of you, your friends or family had somebody fight in the civil war for the south? How do you feel about being descendants of such a people that bought human being and deprived them of their human rights. “but” at the same time yal want to condeem anybody who threaten your Wat of life. “Damn” young white people, since yal want it to be the past. This is what I would like to see. I want to see one million white people, March their forgiving as see up to the white house and tell their government to give the ancestors of past slaves “reparation” and then maybe my people won’t be so adgile. You see young white America, it’s not yal fault. Bullshit!!! Ya’ll educated. Y’all know….. So now what! And for those of you who may feel that this is some form of hate. “KMA” I see how y’all study is. Don’t just tolerate me. understand……luv your neighbor.”

Finkelstein contends that even though there was a policy agreement in place, Harris’ post was constitutionally protected.

Finkelstein also said he had proof that white deputies, had posted similar political posts and received no punishment.

When The Herald asked to see those posts, Finkelstein produced an example in which he said a deputy shared a video posted by Tomi Lahren. (Lahren was a political commentator for the show “The Blaze.”) Another person that Finkelstein said was a Dougherty deputy had an image of a Confederate flag as his profile picture.

“When it is brought to our attention that a policy has been violated, we act on it accordingly at that moment,” Sproul said. “This sheriff and this agency is about trying to unify this community, to bring this community together, not divide it any worse than it is. This (Harris’ post) is, in our opinion here with the command staff and my opinion, is that Mr. Harris’ social media posts were blatantly divisive and not beneficial for our agency and our community. I met with my chief, my colonel, my major and my captain, and everyone from his sergeant all the way up to my chief deputy said we had no choice but termination on this matter.”

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I am primarily the public safety reporter, but also cover a variety of other news events and special features. I am a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in Philosophy and have been with the Herald since April of 2016.

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