Judge rules against Huntington Beach woman who alleged her free speech was violated

Huntington Beach Civic Center
Shayna Lathus was removed from the Citizens Participation Advisory Board in 2019 by now-Mayor Kim Carr who had appointed her. She has lost her lawsuit alleging violation of her free speech rights.
(File Photo)

A United States District Court judge has dismissed the lawsuit of a Huntington Beach woman who sued the city, claiming that her free speech was violated when she was removed from the Citizen Participation Advisory Board in 2019.

Shayna Lathus was removed from her volunteer position after photos surfaced online of her attending a rally in support of immigrant rights in downtown Huntington Beach, standing next to people who were wearing black and believed to be Antifa activists.

Lathus said at the time that she didn’t know Antifa activists would be present and she didn’t engage with them, but she was removed from the board by now-Mayor Kim Carr, who had appointed her.

Lathus filed suit against the city in April, seeking unspecified damages, to be reinstated to the Citizens Participation Advisory Board and a declaration by the city. But an order by Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. on Sept. 29 stated that while Lathus’ participation in the protest was protected by the U.S. Constitution, Carr had the authority to remove her from the board.

Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates represented the city on the case.

“As I’ve said since Day One in defense of this case, the mayor’s prerogative is to appoint on committees like this, and to discharge people,” Gates said. “That’s her prerogative. That’s not an official government action that deprives somebody of their right for free speech. That’s kind of the theme that we’ve maintained, and in more words than that, the court agreed.”

Lathus, reached by phone Wednesday, declined comment and deferred to her lead attorney, Costa Mesa-based Andrea Bird-Steiner. Bird-Steiner said she plans to appeal the ruling in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We think the judge is wrong on this one, and that Supreme Court precedent and 9th Circuit precedent come out the other way,” Bird-Steiner said. “We’re interested in protecting the rights of free speech. The judge’s order did recognize that her activity was protected activity, the order just came out on the side of it being not protected enough for her to not be removed ... but I don’t think the Supreme Court and 9th Circuit would agree.”

Bird-Steiner said she believes that precedent shows that in order to fire someone for political reasons, it needs to be a policy-making position and politics need to be essential for the job function.

Blumenfeld’s order states that Lathus had to realize that, by accepting her appointment, she was no longer the only person politically accountable for her public actions.

“By the appointment process, [Lathus] could therefore be viewed as a political extension of the person who had the sole authority to appoint her,” the order reads. “In short, when [Lathus] decided to engage in public protest, she was expressing her views and showing support for a cause in association with other like-minded individuals. In doing so, she unquestionably was exercising her constitutional rights. However, such exercise does not ... immunize her from the political fallout of her actions.

“Contrary to the thrust of [Lathus’] lawsuit, Carr was not politically powerless to disassociate herself from her public actions through a process that authorized appointment and removal in Carr’s sole discretion.”

Lathus posted a statement on social media after the rally saying she supports both law enforcement and immigrant rights. But, according to Lathus’ lawsuit, Carr told her that her statement was “not enough” because she didn’t specifically denounce Antifa.

“Those that do not immediately denounce hateful, violent groups do not share my values and will not be a part of my team,” Carr wrote as part of an email to fellow City Council members and staff at the time.

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