Censorship-Free Speech

Baum Hedlund Settles First Amendment Case Against Irvine Mayor Shea

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman civil rights attorneys have secured a settlement agreement on behalf of an Irvine man in his First Amendment case against Christina Shea, the former mayor of Irvine, California.

The City of Irvine will pay a sum of money to Mr. Lamar West on behalf of Christina Shea to settle allegations that Shea violated Mr. West’s First Amendment rights when she was mayor by blocking him from posting on her personal Facebook profile.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that erupted over the summer of 2020, Shea, who was mayor at the time, posted a controversial comment on her Facebook profile concerning the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests.

Shea’s post, which has since been deleted, read:

"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 … 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 replied to Mayor Shea’s post:

"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."

Shea’s response to Mr. West and others who left critical comments was to block them from posting on her profile. Mr. West and others asked the mayor to unblock them but Shea refused. Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman sent a demand letter to Shea explaining that she could not censor Mr. West's viewpoint as she had created a public forum on her Facebook profile.

When she did not respond to the letter, did not unblock Mr. West, and only modified her public profile with the description "this is not a government page," attorneys for Mr. West filed a civil rights lawsuit on his behalf.

The lawsuit accused Shea of using her Facebook profile as a public forum and committing viewpoint discrimination and censorship by blocking West and others from engaging in open discourse on systemic racism and police misconduct.

Mayor Shea responded to the lawsuit by filing a motion to dismiss. U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney denied the motion, finding that Lamar West "plausibly alleges that Defendant 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."

Attorneys for Shea and Mr. West entered into settlement negotiations and reached a finalized agreement on Dec. 7, 2020. The next day, Mayor Shea left office.

The City of Irvine released a statement on Dec. 9, 2020, noting that “there can be no question that this whole situation could have been avoided had former Mayor Shea not blocked the users and deleted the posts.”

This is the City’s entire statement:

Statement Regarding West v. Shea Matter

Wednesday, December 9, 2020
 

The City of Irvine recently paid a substantial sum to settle a lawsuit arising from former Mayor Christina Shea’s use of her personal Facebook profile. Mayor Shea chose to block users and delete postings relating to the Black Lives Matter movement during the protests last summer. One of the blocked users, Lamar West, sued former Mayor Shea in federal court, claiming she violated his free speech rights. Because Mr. West alleged the Mayor’s activities amounted to government action, the City was required by law to defend the lawsuit.

Even though the case ultimately settled with no admission of liability, the City incurred over $80,000 in legal fees to defend the lawsuit, and spent almost $40,000 more in settlement. While arguments can be made that the City could have successfully defended the lawsuit at trial, there can be no question that this whole situation could have been avoided had former Mayor Shea not blocked the users and deleted the posts.

The City of Irvine holds itself to high standards. It encourages robust discussion of important public issues, and it disapproves of actions that silence the voices of those with opposing points of view. Putting aside the question of what is “legal,” the City believes that former Mayor Shea’s actions did not meet the City’s standards and expectations.

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman attorneys Pedram Esfandiary, Monique Alarcon, and Timothy A. Loranger represented Mr. West in this case.

“It was an honor to represent Lamar West in this important case, which should serve as a strong warning that elected officials cannot censor dissenting voices on the internet,” said attorney Pedram Esfandiary.

You can read more details in our press release here.

You can view the complaint to this case here.

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