A resident of Orange County, Calif., has filed a federal lawsuit against Irvine mayor Christine Shea, alleging that she blocked him from her official Facebook page because he criticized her statements about Black Lives Matter and funding of the police department. Lamar West contends that the blocking from Shea’s Facebook page violated his First Amendment free-speech rights.
Shea had posted a message that she had received several e-mails from Black Lives Matter. She posted: “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.”
In response, West posted the following message:
"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 last (sic) …"
Shea – or someone on her staff – then blocked West. He is “unable to comment, contribute, or participate in any of the discussions and debates occurring within this forum,” reads the complaint in West v. Shea. The lawsuit contends that Mayor Shea’s Facebook page, which allows constituents to comment, constitutes a type of public forum open to different viewpoints.
“Mayor Shea’s conduct is particularly egregious where, amid a pandemic, social distancing guidelines have largely limited citizens’ ability to engage with public officials and participate in public discourse to virtual settings, rather than in person,” the complaint reads. “At a minimum, the Mayor acted in reckless and callous disregard for [West’s] rights.”
Many other public officials, including President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have faced lawsuits for blocking critics from their social media pages. The problem for public officials is that most reviewing courts have determined that blocking critics from official government social media accounts constitutes a form of viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012), of a 12-part lecture series titled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and of a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).