County official says human error caused months of sheriff’s office Facebook posts vanish
Any content created on a social media account managed by a governmental body is generally considered public information and part of the government record, according to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The sheriff’s office faces another potential problem arising from the matter: violations of the First Amendment rights of anyone whose comments were deleted from the page.
BRAINERD — Seven months’ worth of Facebook posts on the official Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office page disappeared from the internet Tuesday, April 27, and county officials say it was human error.
County Administrator Tim Houle said Wednesday afternoon the sheriff’s office submitted a request with the social media company to retrieve the lost data, which included posts and the associated comments made between Sept. 22, 2021, and this week. By 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night, the missing posts appeared to have been restored, as noted in a post from the sheriff’s office account.
Any content created on a social media account managed by a governmental body is generally considered public information and part of the government record, according to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
“That’s why it’s an important issue,” Houle said during a phone interview. “It’s not like we would have the authority to go back in and delete the posts going back to ‘21. I don’t believe we can do that. But human mistakes happen. We’re a collection of people. … I think it was an honest error. And it is terribly bad timing.”
The bad timing to which Houle referred related to a data request submitted Sunday asking Crow Wing County to disclose who has administrative access to the sheriff’s office page. The request further asked the county to identify which of these individuals apparently deleted or hid comments made by other Facebook users on the page.
Houle said he believed the employee who mistakenly deleted the posts — one of four with administrative access — did so while attempting to retrieve information related to the data request.
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, the sheriff’s office posted its own explanation of events on Facebook.
“You may have recently noticed that our posts for the last several months are gone,” the post stated. “Back in September Facebook revamped it's business page layout and we made the change to the new format. Yesterday when one of our employees that posts to the page was going through settings clicked on an option to view our page in the ‘classic view’ not knowing that we would lose our content and they would not be able to revert back to the new layout.
“Just know that if you are using the new business layout, DO NOT revert back to the ‘classic view.’ Please let us know if anyone has an idea how to revert back to the new layout so we can get our content back. We are currently trying to work with Facebook to get our content back.”
Facebook’s new business page experience rolled out over a few months in late 2021. A blog post on ContentCal, an Adobe-owned company allowing users to manage social media planning, warned page administrators not to rush into the updated look.
“Unfortunately, once some pages have switched over to Facebook’s New Pages Experience, they will be unable to switch back,” the November 2021 post stated. “ … If you are able to switch back to your classic page it is likely you’ll lose access to some elements of your page. … Any new posts created on the new Page will not be transferred back.”
The sheriff’s office faces another potential problem arising from the data request: violations of the First Amendment rights of anyone whose comments were deleted from the page.
Houle could not confirm Wednesday whether any comment deletions occurred. He noted the sheriff’s office page is managed separately from the Crow Wing County, MN Government page , which members of his staff administer.
“We can regulate time, place and manner of speech, but we cannot manage the content of speech. And so what we do needs to be content neutral,” Houle said. “We do have a social media policy. We have deleted posts that are in violation of our policy. Most often that has been for profanity. It has occurred three times in the last five years.”
In 2019, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled public officials cannot block or remove comments on official pages, as doing so would constitute violations of the First Amendment.
“When a public official blocks critics from the page because of their viewpoints, she violates the Constitution,” wrote Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, in a blog post about the ruling. “Indeed, the right to criticize the government is at the heart of the First Amendment. The court specifically recognized blocking as infringing on that right, noting that blocking someone in order to silence criticism of government work is itself evidence of government action.”
The data request originated from Troy Scheffler, a vocal critic of the sheriff’s office who has publicly condemned the office’s leadership during multiple appearances at Crow Wing County Board meetings.
Scheffler most recently appeared Tuesday, where he dressed in a blond wig, makeup and a T-shirt rolled up into a crop style. He told commissioners his costume was a bid for attention from the sheriff, who he said paid attention if people are “dolled up and look sexy.”
He leveled a number of allegations as part of his public comment, including that members of the sheriff’s office repeatedly ran his protected driver’s license data without a permissible purpose. Scheffler asked for the identities of these individuals as part of the same data request seeking the information about Facebook administrators.
In 2021, Crow Wing County agreed to a settlement with Scheffler in a lawsuit he initiated in 2020 in federal court. The lawsuit — which named Crow Wing County, Sheriff Scott Goddard and now-retired Lt. Joseph Meyer in the initial complaint — alleged violations of the Drivers Privacy Protection Act, among other claims.
The details of the settlement agreement were not available Wednesday night, but the case was dismissed in April 2021 following a letter to the federal judge from Scheffler’s attorney acknowledging the settlement.
Scheffler made a separate data request Tuesday night after the posts disappeared from the sheriff’s office page, asking the county to disclose who was responsible.
“Sirs, this is nothing short of insane,” Scheffler wrote to Houle and Goddard. “I just made a data request to you two and your response is to literally destroy evidence? Yes, that is literally what happened. It would seem to me that you both are mainly invested in containing the bad press associated with the nonsense that is occurring in the Sheriff’s Department.”
Scheffler also requested further information about an ongoing internal investigation concerning accusations of sexual harassment in the sheriff’s office, raised publicly in late March by parties represented by Attorney Ed Shaw.