Tennessee officials to pay $125K to settle claim they arrested a man for meme about fallen officer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Authorities in Tennessee have settled a First Amendment lawsuit for $125,000, the plaintiff's attorneys said Monday. The suit was filed by a man who said he was arrested over a disparaging social media post about a law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty.

Joshua Andrew Garton was arrested in January 2021 after posting a meme depicting two people urinating on a gravestone with a photo of a Dickson County sheriff’s officer who was fatally shot in 2018 pasted into the image. Garton's attorneys filed a federal lawsuit in Nashville, saying their client's First Amendment right to free speech was violated.

Garton's post was captioned, “Just showing my respect to deputy Daniel Baker from the #dicksoncountypolicedepartment.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was called in at the request of District Attorney Ray Crouch. Investigators determined the photo was taken from an album cover with a copy of Baker’s official work portrait “crudely” edited onto the grave, court documents show.

Garton was charged with harassment and jailed for nearly two weeks on a $76,000 bond until a Dickson County judge dismissed the charges.

“First Amendment retaliation is illegal, and law enforcement officials who arrest people for offending them will pay heavy consequences,” Garton's lead counsel, Daniel Horwitz, said in a news release Monday. “Misbehaving government officials apologize with money, and Mr. Garton considers more than $10,000.00 per day that he was illegally incarcerated to be an acceptable apology.”

A copy of the notarized settlement signed by Garton was included in the news release, showing he agreed to accept $125,000 from the state to settle claims against two Tennessee Bureau of Investigation officials and Crouch, the district attorney. The agreement also says the government defendants are not admitting wrongdoing, liability or concession by settling, but instead are seeking to “avoid the burden and expense of continuing this litigation.”

A court filing Monday by Garton's attorneys notified the judge of the settlement and said the lawsuit should be dismissed.

A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesperson declined to comment. Crouch did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Documents released under a public records request filed by Horwitz show investigators believed Garton's social media post could be perceived as threatening or intimidating to Baker’s surviving relatives — even though he did not send it to them.

“The trolls will do what trolls do. It appears they and the lawyers forget that there are surviving family members who have rights as well,” TBI Director David Rausch said in a text conversation included in the records.

The lawsuit argued Garton was the victim of “false arrest and malicious prosecution” with authorities “incarcerating him for weeks and broadcasting his mugshot and the fact of his arrest to news media and the public in retaliation for disrespecting police.”