HERNANDO – Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis is in the hot seat again, after records show he ordered the blocking of nearly 300 Facebook accounts for making critical comments about the agency. In doing so, Nienhuis violated the First Amendment rights of every individual he blocked, according to recent federal court rulings.
Last month, R News published a report on rampant sexual misconduct occurring within in the agency that involved top ranking officials. The investigation began after former Deputy Matthew Puglia filed a lawsuit against the agency for wrongful termination. Puglia claims Deputy Joseph McClennan made sexually suggestive comments about his girlfriend and urged him to bring her to sex parties. As McClennan's boorish behavior continued, Puglia pushed back, which didn't go over well with co-workers or his leadership. CLICK HERE for the full story.
As word spread throughout the community about the unbecoming behavior, residents began criticizing Nienhuis and other top brass through comments on the agency's Facebook page. HCSO's Public Information Officers tried desperately to quell the ridicule by claiming R News is not a legitimate or reliable news source. They continued making libelous statements about R News and eventually blocked this reporter and the Adventure Coast Journal (the http://www.rnews.news Facebook page) from viewing or commenting on HCSO's agency page. R News discovered through a public records request that HCSO routinely blocks citizens when they make critical statements about the agency or Sheriff Nienhuis. According to U.S. Constitution, that is an indisputable violation of the First Amendment.
In 2016, Loudoun County, Virginia resident Brian Davison sued Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, after she blocked him on her official Facebook Page. Davison posted critical comments about Randall on her official page, stating he believed she and other board members were receiving kickbacks. Davison was blocked from the page for making those allegations.
After a three-year legal battle, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the interactive portion of a public official's Facebook page is a "public forum," so an official cannot block people from voicing their opinions.
An Indiana man sued Boone County earlier this year, after county officials blocked him from their public Facebook page, for what they say were "inappropriate" comments. The complainant Kevin Dininger says he simply commented on the county's Facebook page that he would vote for the challenger in an upcoming county commissioner race.
The ACLU says county officials committed "viewpoint-based discrimination" and violated Dininger's First Amendment rights, when they blocked him on their Facebook page.
In a statement to the Indy Star, Gavin Rose, Senior Attorney of ACLU of Indiana said, "Boone County's practice of silencing citizens on Facebook who are critical of the County's actions is unconstitutional."
But this is just one example in a series of actions taken by the agency to silence R News for reporting issues involving the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Since this reporter's multi-year investigation into federal fraud, human trafficking, drug trafficking, and a plethora of other crimes involving a local domestic violence shelter began, Sheriff Nienhuis and other county officials have been relentless in trying to silence critical information. CLICK HERE to view the full details.
When R News launched a new website in January of this year, HCSO Public Information Officer Denise Moloney immediately took action to prevent R News from being able to operate in Hernando County or anywhere in Florida.
Most media outlets in Florida subscribe to Media-Alert, a private company that collects press releases from law enforcement agencies and disburses them to media outlets. R News secured a subscription in February of this year but that only lasted about a month before Moloney sent a libelous email to the owners of Media-Alert, asking them to remove my subscription.
Moloney writes in part:
Is it possible to get a call from someone in charge of Media Alert in regards to misuse of Media Alert?
An individual by the name of Floyd Thomas Lemons (aka Thomas Newcastle III) represents himself as a local journalist; however, he is nothing more than a blogger, oftentimes posting information that has not been confirmed and/or is most inaccurate. The HCSO does not recognize this individual as a member of the media; therefore, he is required to make
requests for public records through the Records Department, as all citizens are required to do. Legitimate members of the media are able to make such requests through the PIO/Office of Public Information.
With that being said, Mr. Lemons does subscribe to Media Alert (as per an email sent to the HCSO)
As a result of her email, Media-Alert removed R News's subscription and declined to respond to our requests to reinstate the account.
Moloney is not the arbiter of who is and isn't a journalist. Moloney abused her power as a law enforcement agency representative to destroy another business in an effort to stifle the First Amendment.
During a recent armed standoff with sheriff's deputies in Brooksville, R News responded to the media staging area to receive information from Moloney, regarding the incident. Because of our initial breaking news report, a News Channel 8 reporter responded to the scene to broadcast their own report. When Moloney approached the crime scene tape to take questions, the News Channel 8 reporter became furious with R News for recording the interview. CLICK HERE for video from than incident. Moloney then allowed News Channel 8 reporters to cross the crime scene tape and receive and exclusive private interview in her agency vehicle. Moloney is heard refusing to provide information to R News viewers regarding the incident.
Moloney's actions, under the authority of Sheriff Nienhuis, have caused serious damages to R News; subsequently, Patriodoc Productions Inc., the parent company for R News is preparing to take legal action against the agency.
It should be noted that this reporter has known Moloney for 12 years, and prior to this year, Moloney and HCSO considered R News a "legitimate news source." It wasn't until we returned to Hernando County that HCSO began their campaign to eliminate this media organization from operating in the county. It should also be noted that R News had an account with Media-Alert between 2013 - 2019 and received no complaints.
But the Sheriff's Office isn't the only branch of local government stepping on the Constitutional rights of Hernando County citizens. Judge Daniel B. Merritt took steps in 2019 to stop this reporter from bringing cameras into the court building or interviewing court officials at all.
During production the documentary, Behind the Gate, Judge Merritt ordered this reporter to stop interviewing court officials or be held in contempt. Since that date, no one has been able to record video or audio beyond the entrance to the court building.
In recent days, a "First Amendment Auditor" was seen protesting outside the court building in Brooksville, holding a sign that reads Smith vs Cumming. The case refers to a Georgia couple who say their First Amendment rights were violated when police prevented them from video recording police activity.