An American Indian activist arrested for Facebook comments he made about the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council will appear in court in March 2014. A pre-trial hearing was held Aug. 28 in Browning for Bryon Scott Farmer.
Farmer was arrested on July 12 for allegedly breaking Tribal Ordinance 67, an obscure tribal law that some members say is stifling free speech on the Blackfeet Reservation. Farmer spent four days in jail in Browning. His bail was initially set at $5,000 cash, but it was eventually lowered to $500.
Farmer did not attend the pre-trial hearing in Browning, but is set to appear in court on March 26, 2014. His attorney, Dave Gordon, plans on filing a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing Ordinance 67 is a violation of his client’s freedom of speech. The Indian Civil Rights Act passed in 1968 guarantees American Indians the right to free speech and the ability to protest.
“They’re basically saying if you criticize the tribal council you’re going to go to jail and that’s frightening,” Gordon said.
Farmer administers a Facebook page called “Blackfeet Against Corruption” and is a staunch critic of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. Last summer, members of the ruling council suspended five elected councilors and more than two-dozen tribal employees. Since then the nine-member panel has been partially vacant and Chairman Willie Sharp Jr.’s administration has been ruling under an emergency declaration.
On June 18, Farmer posted about the upcoming North American Indian Days on Facebook.
“We will show our tribe, Indian Country, America and the world that the Blackfeet will no longer allow corrupt leaders, illegal actions, politicians that ignore the will of the people, and abuse our laws and people,” he wrote. “We will show all Indians that you CAN take back your reservation when corrupt and incompetent politicians get out of control.”
Farmer continued, writing that he was not planning anything violent or illegal. In the comments section, he wrote that protestors planned on making a float for the North American Indian Days parade.
Ten days later, Blackfeet Chief Prosecutor Carl Pepion charged Farmer with violating Ordinance 67, which protects council members from “allegations of threats, slanderous material and misleading information.”
Tribal officials have defended the charge and Farmer’s arrest, saying that while his Facebook comments seemed innocent, they were concerned about it sparking violence. Sharp said Ordinance 67 has been used to protect the council and, in the last year, his own life has been threatened.
“There is another side to this whole thing,” Sharp said in July. “We were within our right as a tribal government to protect the interests of our members.”
Ordinance 67 was created in 1983 after a tribal councilor was assaulted at tribal headquarters. The law was crafted after federal laws that protect government employees. It has been amended twice, most recently in October 2009. According to the ordinance, if convicted, Farmer could face one year in jail.
Farmer said he believes he is within his right to speak out against the tribal council. In the nearly two months since his arrest, Farmer has remained an active member of the Facebook group he administers and said he plans on continuing to criticize the council.
“They don’t want me to speak out again,” he said. “We just have to keep changing along in this battle.”
Calls to Blackfeet Chief Prosecutor Carl Pepion were not returned.
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