GAINESVILLE, FL (ALACHUA COUNTY) - A news report on the dallasobserver.com states that a man donated $10 to a GoFundMe campaign and then was arrested by police. According to the news story, a candidate running for the Gainesville ISD school board found out that a warrant for his arrest was issued, and so the man turned himself into law enforcement authorities. The news story states that the man was arrested and charged with "online impersonation."
According to the news story, the man gave a small online contribution to a local anti-racist organization, but he made the donation using the Gainesville police chief's name. This prompted a criminal investigation.
The defendant is currently in his final college semester, and he was looking forward to beginning graduate school. However, his legal battle with the "online impersonation" criminal charge has been "really distracting" to the college student. The defendant believes that he is protected by the First Amendment in his criminal case.
The defendant allegedly donated $10 to the legal fund of a local organization that is known for its protests around the removal of Gainesville's Confederate statue. The defendant executed the $10 GoFundMe donation using the Gainesville police Chief's full name, and the defendant included a message stating, "I need attention, and these kids help me get it. Every villain needs a hero!"
According to the defendant, he believed the donation and statement was a parody, but according to the news report, the Gainesville Police Chief did not.
The defendant made a statement saying that he does support law enforcement but that law enforcement is not immune from criticism, and whenever law enforcement is engaging in filing excessive charges against citizens, the public should be made aware of these issues.
According to the news report, the Police Chief asked the Texas Rangers to investigate the case so as not to create any bias in the investigation. When a Texas Ranger contacted the defendant, the defendant admitted to making the donation and donation statement.
The Gainesville Police Chief stated that the GoFundMe contribution gave the appearance that he was "working against his own police force," and this damages the credibility and respect within the police department.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contacted the Cooke County attorney and demanded that the county attorney immediately drop the criminal charges against the defendant, calling the arrest and charge "unlawful and unconstitutional."
The defendant is facing a Class A misdemeanor charge punishable by up to $4,000 in legal fines and up to one year in county jail if convicted. The court set the defendant's bond at $3,000, which the defendant's attorney says is higher than most felony bail bonds amounts. The defendant's attorney stated that there are many examples of people making donations under other people's names that do not result in criminal charges. The defendant's attorney also stated that public officials need to be OK with being criticized.
According to the ACLU's letter, many people would see the defendant's comment as an obvious joke, parody, or criticism of a public official, which are all protected speech under the First Amendment. In its letter, the ACLU also stated that "Americans are free to criticize public officials, with impunity, even if those officials feel "lampooned by the joke." The letter also stated that this protected speech is what grants comedians the legal right to impersonate public officials on television shows like Saturday Night Live.
According to the Police Chief, the First Amendment ends when speech begins to harm another, and the 14th Amendment guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law, which includes law enforcement. He also stated that law enforcement officers do not give up their constitutional rights when they take their oath as police officers.
The defendant stated that he is willing to take his case all the way to the Supreme Court.