ENCINITAS — Mayor Catherine Blakespear will issue a public apology for blocking critics from participating in conversations on her mayoral Facebook page as part of a recent settlement agreement, sources familiar with the matter told The Coast News.
The settlement, which was finalized and signed on Monday, also stipulates that Blakespear, a candidate for the 38th State Senate District seat, will refrain from any further blocking of commenters on her social media profiles, and will pay an undisclosed sum to help cover the attorney’s fees of the involved parties, according to Michael Curran, an attorney at the Carlsbad-based law firm Curran & Curran Law.
In April, Curran submitted a cease-and-desist letter to Blakespear on behalf of Robert Nichols, former chairman of the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, and approximately 15 other “citizens rights advocates,” requesting that Blakespear allow residents to freely exchange their views on her Facebook posts without being blocked or having their comments deleted.
Curran later submitted a similar letter to Councilmember Joy Lyndes, a District 3 representative also serving on the Encinitas City Council, who was accused of blocking critics.
Blakespear eventually unblocked Nichols and the other persons in question, but Curran said that his clients were still prepared to take the mayor to court with a civil lawsuit if she had not agreed to the settlement terms.
A similar settlement agreement is also being finalized with Lyndes, Curran said.
The attorney said his clients appreciate the case’s resolution but the situation escalating to this level reflects poorly on the mayor.
“This [settlement] is a win for free speech,” Curran said. “The trouble with the practices of these politicians like Blakepsear and Lyndes — and they’re not alone in doing this by the way, in terms of politicians blocking adverse views — is that they took a constitutional oath to protect free speech.
“We shouldn’t have had to do any of this, to begin with — they should have kept their constitutional oaths. You might think, ‘Oh, she blocked somebody, big deal,’ but actually, this is a fight for free speech. It’s a fight for our constitutional liberties, and if we give up on those, they get taken away.”
In a statement provided to The Coast News, Nichols said the financial component of the settlement wasn’t important to him, but rather the principle of the matter that drove him to pursue the case at the legal level.
“I’m happy that Mayor Catherine Blakespear signed our settlement agreement. She broke the law by violating her sworn oath of office as an elected official, was caught doing it and she knew it,” Nichols said. “I was prepared to go to court to fight for my rights and those of our community members. I didn’t care how much it was going to cost or how long it was going to take, our First Amendment is paramount.
“Any elected official who doesn’t understand how sacred our First Amendment is or their sworn oath of office as an elected public official should not be representing the people, it’s dangerous.”
In a response to a request for comment, Blakespear simply told The Coast News “the dispute over access to my social media account has been resolved and that’s all I have to say about that.”
Ruben Flores, a former Encinitas planning commissioner and a prominent critic of the sitting council, was one of several individuals represented by Curran pursuing legal action against Blakespear after his comments were reportedly deleted and he was blocked from the mayor’s Facebook page.
Flores said he appreciated Blakespear’s willingness to apologize and make amends but argued the situation was reflective of a City Council that he claims has become alarmingly deaf to constituents’ concerns over accountability in city government.
“I think, first of all, it’s very important that people understand that I am a former supporter of Blakespear, I campaigned for her,” Flores said. “But now I’ve become extremely disappointed and shocked at the turn Mayor Blakespear has taken in the last couple of years. The fact that there had to be a settlement speaks volumes to the fact that there was something being done outside of the norm and the law and it speaks volumes to the tactics and approach that the mayor has unfortunately taken on in the last three or four years.
“It’s saddening to me, and it happened not just to me but to many people in this community. The idea of excluding dissenting voices just creates an artificial echo chamber, and it’s a reflection of the attitude of our elected leaders. I want them to listen to all points of view, even the people that voted against them.”
While there is no law against a private individual restricting access to their personal social media, recent federal rulings have determined the First Amendment can be violated if elected officeholder restricts access to their social media page used to engage in activities related to their official capacity.
Since Blakespear uses her official mayoral Facebook page as a forum to discuss city and regional business, events and projects, all speech on such a forum is subject to constitutional protections, Curran said.
David Snyder, attorney and executive director of First Amendment Coalition, said the settlement agreement requiring the mayor to apologize was an ideal outcome allowing both parties to avoid costly and time-consuming litigation.
“This was a good result where there’s no need for a lawsuit,” Snyder told The Coast News. “The mayor agreed to correct her behavior and this presumably means she won’t do this in the future. When these things are resolved short of litigation that’s often the best course cause lawsuits take time and money.”
Snyder also explained that such legal cases involving the social media pages of political figures are becoming increasingly common, describing it as an “evolving field of law.”
Generally speaking, judges appear to be considering officeholders’ social media pages to be “public forums,” and thus protected under the First Amendment, Snyder said.
“It is something that is coming up more and more often, that public officials are becoming aware that their social media platforms may be subject to same kinds of first amendment requirements that forums in public spaces are subject to,” Snyder said. “Provided that the account is connected to your work as a public official, the courts are making it clear that you can’t arbitrarily block people just because they disagree with your viewpoint, perceived or real.”
“In a public forum, you can’t engage in viewpoint discrimination, like at a city council meeting you can’t say well if you speak negatively about this policy proposal we’re going to give you less time than someone who speaks favorably of the proposal. There’s a growing body of case law that exports this doctrine to the social media realm under the theory that social media accounts — while not in a physical space — provide the same sorts of places for public discussion about the public’s business.”