Free Speech

Victory for Free Speech – Judge Rules Public Officials Cannot Censor Online Critics

A federal judge in Southern California has denied Irvine Mayor Christina Shea’s motion to dismiss a case that accuses her of violating First Amendment rights by blocking a constituent from posting on her Facebook profile after the constituent criticized her online comments discussing the City of Irvine’s budget and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman attorneys Pedram Esfandiary, Monique Alarcon, and Timothy A. Loranger filed the complaint this summer against Mayor Shea on behalf of plaintiff Lamar West, a software engineer from Irvine.

The lawsuit alleges that Mayor Shea, who used her Facebook profile as a public forum, committed censorship and viewpoint discrimination when she blocked Mr. West from discussing the issues of systemic racism and police brutality on her online profile.

Lamar West v. Christina Shea—What is This Case About?

Central to Mr. West’s case is the question of whether an elected official’s social media page functions as a public forum. The Thurgood Marshall Bar Association, the Knight First Amendment Institute, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, have all said if a government official uses their platform to discuss policy and it is open to the public, the platform is a public forum in which viewpoint discrimination is prohibited by the First Amendment.

On June 3, 2020, following George Floyd’s death and the protests that ensued throughout the country, Mayor Shea posted the following now-deleted message on her Facebook profile:

“I received several email messages today from Black Lives Matter – By the way, we have one Council candidate maybe more, supporting and promoting this movement…

I say this because I was asked today to cut funding for our Public Safety Dept and reallocate the money to community issues such as homelessness etc.

We have been named one of the Safest Cities in America for 15 years in a row and I will not agree to reduce our public safety funding especially after seeing the violence we have endured as a nation this past week,” Shea wrote on her profile. “If you are coming into Irvine to promote an agenda, and protest for lesser public safety protection, best you turn around and find another city to compromise.”

Mr. West, who was one of more than a hundred others to comment on Mayor Shea’s post, wrote the following:

“Like other educated people have mentioned it’s okay for you to support the movement and not defund the police but you don’t want to do either. I can hear the racist ancestors of yours in this post and it’s sickening. Enjoy your position while it lasts.”

According to Mr. West, Mayor Shea went on to block him and several other people who responded to her post with critical comments of her official position as Mayor for the City of Irvine. Mr. West and others asked Mayor Shea to unblock them from her public profile that she used to communicate with her constituency. Per the complaint, Shea refused.

Attorneys from Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman sent a demand letter requesting that Shea unblock Mr. West from her Facebook profile, noting the mayor’s profile was an online public forum and that she could not censor Mr. West’s viewpoint. According to the complaint, Shea did not respond to the demand letter, nor did she unblock Mr. West. Shea did, however, modify her public profile with the description “this is not a government page.”

On July 20, 2020, Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman filed Mr. West’s lawsuit, alleging Mayor Shea’s profile is a public forum, and that she committed censorship and viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and also in violation of California’s Constitution. Soon after, attorneys for Mayor Shea filed a motion to dismiss.

On Nov. 12, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney of the Central District of California – Southern Division denied Mayor Shea’s motion to dismiss, writing that Mr. West “plausibly alleges that [Shea] blocked him from her Profile solely because he expressed a view she did not like. Governmental viewpoint discrimination has long been prohibited by the First Amendment.” Importantly, Judge Carney also denied the defendant’s qualified immunity argument. This groundbreaking ruling is significant as it is an issue of first impression in the Central District of California, which the Ninth Circuit has also not addressed.

“This is a huge step in the right direction for the people! Public officials need to be held accountable for their actions especially when they affect our constitutional rights,” stated Lamar West. “I’d like to urge all the young, black, people of color, and residents of Irvine and other cities to continue fighting injustices wherever they may exist. Let’s continue making our cities safe and inclusive for the current and future generations to come.”

“This is a great win and will help pave the way for protecting constituents’ First Amendment rights to criticize elected officials online,” says attorney Pedram Esfandiary. “This ruling sends a clear message that courts recognize public officials cannot censor dissent and alternative views on the internet, just as they cannot do so in the streets.”

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman | Truth. Justice. Accountability.

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman has successfully represented thousands of clients throughout the nation and around the world in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits, class action litigation, whistleblower claims, and more. Since the death of George Floyd, the firm has taken on police misconduct cases for injured peaceful protestors, is representing Black Lives Matter Los Angeles in a class action against the LAPD, and represents individuals who have suffered other first amendment violations. Baum Hedlund’s award-winning attorneys have decades of experience holding negligent entities accountable for the harm they cause. With more than $4 billion in verdicts and settlements, the firm has earned a reputation for breaking new legal ground and winning big cases against big companies that cause harm.

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