SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Catherine Blakespear has opened a legal defense fund to help fight ongoing litigation with several constituents over alleged free speech violations and breach of a settlement agreement during her time as mayor of Encinitas.
The first-time senator representing the newly-redrawn 38th District — who recently won her anti-SLAPP motion in the case and $120,000 in attorney’s fees — appears to be the only state legislator with an active legal defense fund, as first reported by CalMatters.
The fund has raised $41,500 as of June 8, Secretary of State records show. This includes a $5,500 contribution from the Pechanga Band of Indians, $12,000 from the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, $10,000 from DaVita Inc., and $14,000 from her own Catherine Blakespear for Senate 2026 fund.
The California Democratic Party has also contributed legal assistance equaling around $45,600, according to campaign records.
The litigation originates from Blakespear’s time as mayor when she was accused of blocking constituents from her public campaign page on Facebook in violation of their free speech and then sued for allegedly violating terms of an associated settlement agreement.
State law allows legislators and candidates to establish legal defense funds for cases “arising directly out of the conduct of an election campaign, the electoral process, or the performance of the officer’s governmental activities and duties.”
There are no contribution limits for these funds, but any remaining funds must be disposed of once the legal issue is resolved and all associated expenses have been paid.
Blakespear defended opening a defense fund from her senate seat, stating that the “politically motivated” lawsuit was directly related to her senate campaign Facebook page.
“I opened a Legal Defense Fund to pay for the legal costs associated with defending a lawsuit filed against me in the month before my very competitive and close race for the California State Senate that centered around the use of the Facebook page where I posted all of my campaign events and photos,” Blakespear told The Coast News. “Legal defense funds were created exactly for cases like this one.”
Blakespear added that she already attempted to resolve the conflict with constituents by paying a $5,000 fine and making a public apology on social media for the blockings under a settlement agreement she signed.
Robert Stern, a campaign finance expert who co-authored the Political Reform Act of 1974 and served as the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s general counsel from 1975 to 1983, said legal defense funds are important for officials to be able to have.
If such funds were not permitted, he said, it would be much easier to dissuade candidates from running for office by simply suing them.
“It seems that this is a perfect situation for her to have a legal defense fund because she’s paying money for a claim that arose related to her position as a public official,” Stern said. “Without these legal defense funds, a lawsuit like this could discourage someone from running for office.”
When asked why they donated to Blakespear’s legal fund, Pechanga Band spokesperson Jacob Mejia told The Coast News “they are helping a friend in need of help.”
“Pechanga leadership has been impressed with the senator and is hopeful she will be a fierce advocate for the region and California,” Mejia said.
Case stayed for remainder of legislative session
Blakespear’s position as a state legislator has allowed her to not only fund a legal defense with donations from interest groups lobbying in Sacramento but also to request continuances in legal proceedings during the legislative session.
Last month, San Diego Superior Court Judge Blaine Bowman granted Blakespear’s request to continue further proceedings in the lawsuit until after the legislative session ends in mid-September, referencing state law that says court proceedings involving state officials can be delayed during the session so as not to interfere with their public duties.
However, Bowman warned that this statute should not be used to allow sitting officials to delay court proceedings “ad infinitum if a politician is able to remain in office for multiple repeated terms.”
“In some ways, such delays risk making a mockery of campaign finance rules in that, once a candidate gets elected he or she could — theoretically — put off [a] civil suit for any underlying improprieties indefinitely until after losing power,” Bowman wrote.
Months of litigation
The group of residents who had been blocked or censored by Blakespear on Facebook filed their lawsuit in September 2022, accusing the now-state senator of violating the settlement agreement she signed by issuing a bad-faith apology and paying the $5,000 fee from her campaign funds rather than her personal finances.
Blakespear said in a May 2022 Facebook post that she apologized to “anyone who did not have full access” to her Facebook page and other social media but did not explicitly apologize for “blocking or censoring certain individuals who have been blocked or censored,” as stipulated in the signed settlement agreement
Soon after and just days before the election, Blakespear filed a short-lived countersuit against the residents, claiming they had actually violated the settlement agreement by sharing confidential details about the agreement with The Coast News. The counterclaim was dropped shortly after the Nov. 8 election.
In December, she filed an anti-SLAPP motion in the case, claiming that her apology complied with the settlement agreement and was protected speech qualifying for protection.
The state’s 1992 anti-SLAPP statute is intended to shield individuals and businesses from meritless lawsuits intended to silence views on matters of public interest through expensive and time-consuming litigation.
In Blakespear’s case, she argued plaintiffs had essentially violated her free speech rights. She would emerge victorious in this regard, with Bowman granting her a total of $120,577 in attorney’s fees in May.
In an earlier statement, Bowman also said the plaintiff’s claims that the apology violated the settlement agreement “lack minimal merit.”
“The settlement contract required Ms. Blakespear to make a public apology and the evidence demonstrates that she did so,” Bowman said. “The parties did not negotiate specific wording or specific formatting for the contemplated apology.”
Carla DiMare, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the plaintiffs are appealing the ruling and that she strongly disagreed with the judge’s reasoning.
“The court’s anti-SLAPP order was wrongly decided, it is inconsistent with the facts and the law, the fee order was punitive, in my opinion, and it hurts innocent people and families. My clients have filed a notice of appeal and they have good grounds for doing so. There will be more to this story in the months ahead, but it’s really pretty simple: Defendant Catherine Blakespear violated free speech rights and civil rights, unlawfully censored the public, signed an agreement, and then she reneged on it,” DiMare said.
While the court did oblige Blakespear’s requests for attorney’s fees and continuing further hearings to the fall, Bowman denied her request to be paid out the $120,000 before the stay on proceedings goes into effect.
Bowman stated that if participating in proceedings like responding to discovery is a hindrance taking away from her work, then so too is the effort of collecting fees. As such, she will not be able to collect fees until after the next hearing this fall.
“The court is not inclined to take a ‘pick-and-choose’ approach that allows Senator Blakespear to delay only those aspects of the litigation that are to her disadvantage while continuing to pursue those aspects of the litigation that are to her advantage,” Bowman said.
The next hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 13.
CORRECTION: A previous version incorrectly included the next hearing date as Oct. 6. The next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 13, 2023.