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Irvine Mayor Christina Shea accused of violating resident’s 1st Amendment rights in lawsuit

 Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea
A legal complaint filed this week in federal court claims that Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea violated the 1st Amendment rights of an Irvine resident when she blocked him on Facebook.
(Courtesy of city of Irvine)

Irvine Mayor Christina Shea allegedly violated a resident’s 1st Amendment rights by blocking his profile on Facebook after he made comments in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to a complaint filed this week in federal court.

The complaint, filed on behalf of Irvine resident Lamar West, claims that Shea used her Facebook as a public forum and blocked West’s ability to engage in open discussion during a critical period of debate in the country regarding police brutality and racism.

The lawsuit also says that Shea blocked other residents from her profile page.

“Because of their criticism of the mayor’s tenure and position on recent social events, plaintiff and a host of other individuals have been prevented or impeded from viewing the mayor’s profile, from replying to her posts, from viewing the discussions associated with the posts, and from participating in those discussions,” the complaints reads. “Accordingly, defendant’s actions violated plaintiff’s 1st Amendment right to express dissent in response to the mayor’s policies and to view and interact with the comments of others that have similarly expressed such dissent.”

West is being represented by Los Angeles-based firm, Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman.

Hundreds attended a protest against the death of George Floyd outside Irvine City Hall in June.
Hundreds attended a protest against the death of George Floyd outside Irvine City Hall in June.
(Ben Brazil)

Shea first came under fire in early June for deleting and blocking comments supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement on her Facebook profile. At the time, she contended that the profile page was for personal use, and that she had a separate Facebook profile for public dialogue. Public officials are legally allowed to hold private social media accounts.

However, Shea posted similar statements on both pages during the Black Lives Matter protests in June, and the complaint says that Shea has used her profile “since its inception ... to disseminate information regarding mayoral and city council activities ... all with greater frequency than her page.”

“After receiving a letter about my personal Facebook page I consulted with my city attorney, and as a result made a number of simple changes to ensure that my personal page was for personal matters, and the public page is for city matters,” Shea said Thursday in a texted comment. “Those changes were made weeks ago. My city attorney stated to me all was now in compliance. As an elected official, who isn’t an attorney, it was good to get proper guidance as the laws have been ever changing.”

Shea’s comments in June — made amid nationwide protests that were sparked after the death of George Floyd — were strongly in support of her police department and critical of protesters. They provoked heated discussion on her page.

“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,” Shea wrote on her Facebook page on June 3, according to the complaint.

Online users says they were blocked by Mayor Christina Shea for comments made on her personal Facebook page.
Online users says they were blocked by Mayor Christina Shea for comments made on her personal Facebook page.
(File)

Many responded critically to Shea’s post, including West, a Black man.

“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],” West wrote, according to the complaint.

West was blocked soon after the post and remains blocked, the lawsuit says.

The complaint, which also alleges a violation of the California Constitution, is also asking for compensatory damages for West and for the court to order Shea to unblock West’s account.

“The mayor’s actions clearly suppressed speech within a public forum and during a period of intense public controversy concerning use of force by law enforcement and systematic racism, which precluded plaintiff from being included or able to participate in a robust public debate,” the complaint says.

Irvine Mayor Christina Shea speaks at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.
(Tim Berger / Staff Photographer)

Shea has received criticism from the Thurgood Marshall Bar Assn., Orange County’s only Black bar association, the Knight First Amendment Institute and the ACLU of Southern California for her actions on Facebook.

“When government officials use social media clearly in their governmental capacities, then if they are going to allow comments, they can’t discriminate on the basis of the content of those comments,” Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel and 1st Amendment attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said in June. “Government officials can act as private citizens and use social media as private citizens, in those cases they are free to choose whether they want to delete comments or allow them or pick or choose among them.

“There is quite a bit of official content on both of [Shea’s] pages, and we do have serious concerns about Mayor Shea’s blocking comments on one of her Facebook sites.”

In June, Jessica Ortega, an Irvine resident, said she was blocked after posting comments to Shea’s personal Facebook page. She said she knew a few others who had also been blocked for comments critical of Shea, who is up for reelection in November.

“If I can’t express myself to my own mayor for change, then I don’t feel like my voice is ever going to be heard,” Ortega said at the time.

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