The Vineland Police Department in New Jersey has been forced to restore comments to its Facebook page that were critical of the department for its role in the shooting death of Phillip White, a man who died in police custody.
White was arrested when police were called to respond to a man “freaking out.” A cell phone video of the incident shows him being punched in the head by a police officer; White became unresponsive on the way to the hospital and was pronounced dead.
The incident stirred outrage in the community, and many people took to the department’s Facebook page to express their anger. The police warned that any comments that violated their posting guidelines (no threats, graphic language, racial slurs and more) would be removed, and they deleted several posts. However, the Press of Atlantic City obtained copies of the blocked comments, and some did not appear to break the rules. The comments were then restored.
“Their Facebook page is a public record,” said Harry B. Scheeler, an open government activist who originally filed the request. “Police and governments are subject to criticism of the people. They don’t have a right to censor the people.”
Facebook page administrators have the right to delete any comment that they want. However, in the case of public institutions, especially ones that are going to come in for heated criticism, there should be a tool in place to help better facilitate conversation and prevent censorship like this.