An Ocean View School District board member is seeking a permanent restraining order against a Huntington Beach blogger who argues the trustee is using the courts to stifle criticism.
Trustee Gina Clayton-Tarvin, 46, was granted a temporary restraining order against Charles Keeler Johnson, known better as Chuck Johnson, 56, on March 26 by Judicial Officer Timothy J. Stafford.
An Orange County Superior Court hearing Wednesday will determine whether to make that order permanent.
Attorney Jeffrey W. Shields filed the petition on behalf of Clayton-Tarvin, who alleges in court documents that Johnson has threatened her on social media and at school board meetings, causing her to "fear for my own safety and for that of my immediate family members."
Clayton-Tarvin, a teacher, wrote in the request to the court that Johnson accused her of lying about her "firsthand experiences" with school violence and lockdowns during a March 6 school board meeting.
Johnson, who manages HBSledgehammer.com, repeatedly disrupted the meeting, was removed by armed security and kept outside until he was again allowed to speak during a second public comment period, Clayton-Tarvin wrote.
Johnson apologized but became agitated again and allegedly told Clayton-Tarvin, "They want your head on a stick" and "I'm gonna give it to them," according to her account in court records.
Clayton-Tarvin included examples from 2017, where, she wrote, Johnson threatened to "kill [me] first and piss on yours," and "use a rope and pillow case to hang or suffocate me, to use an axe to kill me" and harm "the entire Tarvin family."
In another passage, according to the filing, the school trustee wrote, she was told to "be quiet or be killed."
Asked for comment, Johnson said in an emailed statement that he was "not at liberty to discuss my defense strategy but I am quite confident that my legal team will be able to expose Clayton-Tarvin as the dishonest, cold, calculating first amendment assassin that she is."
Johnson added that by assassin, he meant "she's literally trying to silence myself and many other private citizens that dare to disagree with her. I am confident that the truth will emerge. I'm anxious, yet grateful for this opportunity to expose her once and for all as the hypocrite that she is."
Clayton-Tarvin, who was elected in 2012, has been involved in longstanding feuds on social media, including Facebook community forums where conversations about local politics regularly become heated. She has an ample number of both supporters and critics.
Following some of the online feuds, Huntington Beach police officers have attended past school board meetings out of caution.
Police Chief Robert Handy said this week there is an ongoing investigation into alleged threats made against an Ocean View board member, but declined to elaborate.
Clayton-Tarvin has unsuccessfully requested a restraining order against a vocal critic in the past. In 2017, the district petitioned for a temporary restraining order on her behalf against Raymond Herrera, a Victorville anti-immigration activist.
Herrera is often found at city council and school board meetings throughout the region, using his cellphone to live stream public comments to officials on Facebook.
In the district's request, Clayton-Tarvin cited two videos posted on his page and what she described as threatening comments from his followers as reasons for feeling "fear and anxiety that Mr. Herrera poses a real and objective danger."
Superior Court Judge Craig Griffin disagreed, citing free-speech concerns and denying the request for a temporary restraining order.
"Contact with persons to be protected has been limited to open public meetings, and [the] court is not inclined to issue prior restraint on speech, particularly regarding public officials at public meetings," Griffin wrote.
The school district did not challenge the ruling but issued a news release, saying it is "obligated to take cautionary measures, which may include seeking restraining orders on behalf of its employees and officials, upon being made aware of a threat of violence that could potentially endanger members of the OVSD community."
A 1st Amendment expert explained that courts are generally reluctant to issue restraining orders in protection of elected officials, to whom constituents are generally granted access in public meetings.
Such orders can be "risky" when dealing with free speech issues because they can "squelch in too broad of fashion," according to David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
Rhetorical or hyperbolic speech, such as rap lyrics where violence is threatened, is generally protected, he explained. And if a person is at a rally and says, "Let's overthrow the government," the words are also protected.
But threatening someone with physical harm in a setting where violence could actually take place isn't protected speech, he said.
The 1st Amendment is broad for a reason, and public officials are required to withstand "all sorts of criticism," Snyder said, adding that they often must endure "unpleasant statements that may allude to violence."
He underscored that courts are understandably "careful" not to punish speech in these cases but also work to determine when a threat is more credible than metaphoric.
"Some threats … get much closer to it being carried out, and even public officials aren't required to withstand a credible threat of violence against them," Synder said. "It depends on context."