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A lawsuit alleges Mayor Catherine Blakespear has violated residents' free speech rights by blocking them on her social media page and reneged on an earlier settlement agreement.
Cities Elections 2022 Encinitas Encinitas Featured News Politics & Government

Residents sue Blakespear for free speech violations, breach of settlement

ENCINITAS — Five Encinitas residents filed a lawsuit against Mayor Catherine Blakespear on Wednesday in Vista Superior Court for allegedly blocking their public comments on her mayoral Facebook page in violation of their free speech rights and breaching the terms of a previous settlement agreement.

San Diego attorney Carla DiMare filed the civil complaint against Blakespear, the Democratic candidate in the race for the 38th State Senate District seat, on behalf of five named plaintiffs — Garvin Walsh, Jordan Marks, Stephen Meiche, Robert Nichols, and Matthew Wheeler — and up to 30 unnamed individuals, all of whom currently live in Encinitas, with the exception of Nichols.

“Blakespear’s conduct was dishonorable,” Walsh wrote in a statement. “She obstructed the participation of opponents in public debate so she could control what was said, and then she reneged on the deal she made to put that issue to bed. Before the ink was even dry on that agreement, she was acting as if none of it applied to her. She’s proven that her word has no value. Mayor Blakespear has no sense of honor.”

In a press release, DiMare, who replaces Carlsbad attorney Michael Curran as the residents’ legal counsel, said that “it is well-settled that blocking, censoring, or deleting comments from Blakespear’s public web pages was a constitutionally-prohibited viewpoint-based restriction.”

While there is no law against a private individual restricting access to their personal social media profiles, recent federal rulings have determined that constitutional violations can be triggered if an elected officeholder restricts public access to a social media page utilized for activities related to their official capacity.

In the complaint, DiMare argued that Blakespear had also breached the terms of an earlier settlement agreement, which included ceasing future similar conduct, issuing a public apology “for blocking/censoring certain individuals on social media,” and paying the plaintiffs $5,000 in attorneys fees.

“After signing that agreement, Blakespear promptly breached it in two ways,” the complaint reads. “First, she breached the agreement because she did not issue the apology required by the agreement. In her statement, she chose to bully the good residents of Encinitas with claims that are untrue, polarizing, divisive, patronizing, and defamatory.

“Second, Blakespear did not make the $5,000 payment as required by the agreement. Instead of making the $5,000 payment herself, which is what the agreement required, she would only offer payment from her campaign, an entity, which did not comply with the agreement.”

The Coast News obtained a copy of the settlement check showing Blakespear paid the $5,000 to Curran & Curran Law from her Blakespear for Mayor 2020 campaign fund.

“Blakespear’s been doing this for years,” Nichols said. “She shouldn’t be allowed to block and delete people from participating in the ‘Digital Town Square.’ Any elected representative who knowingly and willfully obstructs the public’s right to free speech does not deserve to hold public office.”

Kevin Sabellico, Blakespear’s campaign manager in her state Senate bid, characterized the lawsuit as an ongoing politically-motivated attack lacking substance.

“I said it in July and I’ll say it again: this is just another in a long line of predictable politically-motivated, right-wing attacks on Mayor Blakespear designed to distract voters from Matt Gunderson’s extreme anti-choice record,” Sabellico wrote in a statement. “There continues to be no merit or validity to these claims. The mayor’s actions and those of her campaign have always been and will always be in accordance with the California State Senate’s published social media policy, and even though this policy is non-binding on candidates, the mayor holds her campaign to the highest of ethical standards — and she always will.”

Duane Dichiara, Gunderson’s campaign consultant, responded to Sabellico’s characterization of the lawsuit and labeling Gunderson, a pro-choice Republican, as “extreme anti-choice.”

“Again, Blakespear’s lies and lack of transparency is rightly called into question by the citizens of Encinitas, the voters in the 38th that know her the best,” Dichiara said. “It’s this kind of dishonesty that gives all politics a bad name. She lied as mayor, she lied as chair of SANDAG, and now continues to lie as a candidate for State Senate. Matt has been on the record as pro-choice for decades. Blakespear is lying about his positions because she doesn’t want to talk about her support for the gas tax and her vote for a tax on every mile we drive, or her corrupt history of rewarding campaign contributors with public contracts and appointments, or her gross mismanagement of taxpayer money as chair of SANDAG.”

Lawsuit origins

In April, Curran first issued a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of Nichols, former chairman of the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, and several other “citizens rights advocates,” whom Blakespear had reportedly “blocked from participation, comments and involvement in matters of broad public interest” on her mayoral Facebook page in violation of their constitutionally protected free speech rights.

Curran demanded the mayor unblock the residents, promising legal action if his clients were unable to freely exchange their views on her Facebook posts without being blocked or having their comments deleted.

A photograph of a $5,000 check to Curran & Curran Law apparently drawn from funds in the Catherine Blakespear for Mayor 2020 campaign account. Courtesy photo

One week later, Curran reported his clients’ access to the mayor’s Facebook page was restored and later announced he had reached a settlement agreement with Blakespear that would include a public apology and roughly $5,000 in attorneys fees. After making a payment to Curran’s firm, Blakespear issued her public apology in a May 21 Facebook post:

“Politics on social media have become an incubator for hate and vitriol that turns too many civically engaged people away from the civic dialogue. As a woman serving in elected office, I have been the target of threatening and harassing comments on my social media and in my daily life — personal attacks, not simply ones disagreeing with my policy perspectives…

“…Recently, an attorney sent me a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of certain individuals and anonymous complainants who claimed they were not able to participate in my campaign Facebook page…In the cease-and-desist letter, the complainants threatened to sue me if they did not receive a public apology for their inability to participate. To that end, I publicly apologize to anyone who did not have full access to my campaign Facebook page or other social media accounts.”

Afterward, in a letter addressed to Blakespear’s legal counsel, Curran publicly characterized the apology as insincere and argued that the post’s language violated the settlement’s terms.

In July, the group retained DiMare as counsel, who filed a tort claim against the city of Encinitas and Blakespear, both as an official and a private citizen. DiMare did not include the city as a defendant in the civil complaint, listing Blakespear as the lone defendant.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a statement from Duane Dichiara, campaign consultant for Republican candidate Matt Gunderson.

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12 comments

BobNichols September 30, 2022 at 10:32 am

This is Bob Nichols….. I appreciate the Coast News reporting this story. Jordan Ingram and the team at Coast News are doing a wonderful job of reporting the facts and not sensationalizing stories like so many papers do. It’s not a hit piece as Marco says, it’s news, facts, informing the community. Thank you Coast News!

The settlement agreement clearly stated that Blakespear was supposed to pay personally, the settlement check was suppose to come from Catherine Blakespear, not an entity account such as her campaign fund from donors, which she paid from. That’s the first area of the settlement agreement that she violated.

The second area in the settlement agreement Blakespear violated was the specific written apology she was to make to the residents. She didn’t do this, instead she went on a rant accusing residents of stalking her, threatening her safety, none of that could have been further from the truth. She insulted a person with disabilities that she blocked who was only asking ADA related questions, a local Fire Fighter, a former Planning Commissioner, several candidates for local office, teachers, and a lot of upstanding community members. These weren’t threatening people as she described in her non-apology rant. These were human beings that had legitimate questions about Blakespear’s policy’s, yet she labeled them as scum in her statement.

I look forward to the day when we see you in court Catherine Blakespear, when a Judge and Jury will see what you did and hear from all of those you effected over the years. You do not belong in public office, you should not be representing the people.

BobNichols September 30, 2022 at 10:18 am

This is Bob Nichols…. Mayor Catherine Blakespear’s official social media page has been conducting city business for years now. Even Marco Gonzalez said that it’s unfortunate that she conducted city business on her page. When a public servant conducts city business on their page, the public must have the right to view and comment on that page. It’s no different than conducting a city council meeting, the public must have the right to comment and participate in these meeting. What Catherine Blakespear did to the residents of Encinitas was no different than muting the microphone and asking the Sheriff to escort all residents with dissenting views out of the council chambers. There’s no difference.

Blakespear has been blocking people from public forum, open communications for years now. This isn’t something she started doing this year, she’s been doing it for years, deleting hundreds if not thousands of comments from community members and blocking over 30 people. This is illegal, a direct violation of Blakespear’s sacred sworn oath of office to the people. She’s suppose to uphold the people’s First Amendment Rights, not trample all over them. Blakespear may not like what certain community members have to say about her policies and agenda’s, but she has no right to delete an block those people and their comments.

Kevin Sabellico say’s that the people who were blocked were MAGA, “Right Wingers”, that’s not true. Nearly 80% of the people who’ve been blocked and had comments deleted are Democrats. Blakespear and her campaign will do anything to win, even break the law. She deleted comments and blocked people from the “Digital Town Square”. She turned open session council meeting to closed session, more than any other Mayor in our history. She’s refused to debate Matt Gunderson and has been lying about Matt Gunderson being pro-abortion when he’s been pro-choice and vocally since 1994, he has a family of 5 girls. Blakespear appointed 3 of the last 5 sitting council members when the community wanted to vote. She fired long time planning commissioner and local hero Bruce Ehlers against the entire communities wishes, even the Planning Commission begged Blakespear not to fire Bruce, then she was caught violating a civil code in the process. Blakespear’s was caught spending taxpayer money on lavish SANDAG meals and his now mired in a SANDAG accounting scandal as she is the Chairman. The residents and Planning Commission approved a 50% affordable housing ratio, Blakespear said no and made it 20%, then she turns around and snubs low income applicants while giving a affordable property to a developer instead. She tried to squash the residents right to vote on development, Prop A, by taking the vote to court. The list goes on and on. Blakespear is not the kind of State Senate Candidate that will represent the people, anyone who doesn’t value the publics opinion and deletes and hides it, is not transparent and should not be in office.

We intend to hold Blakespear accountable for breaking the law and her sworn oath of office to people. Accountability is paramount!

Deb1949 September 29, 2022 at 8:44 pm

My neighbors, family, friends and I are watching this closely and have been since the beginning. Thank you, Coast News, for keeping the residents up to date on this issue. We appreciate our fellow Encinitians for fighting for us. I’m older now and don’t have that energy, but know that our votes are with you. God Bless!

Elucidated1 September 29, 2022 at 7:39 pm

This is hilarious! How desperate is Robert Nichols? Very. Ballots come out soon and Blakespear is going to win no matter how this ridiculous lawsuit comes out.

But Robert Nichols has serious baggage. First, he doesn’t live in Encinitas. Secondly he ripped off the Surfing Madonna Foundation and then, uh, ripped off the creator. Very becoming!

BobNichols September 30, 2022 at 9:53 am

This is Bob Nichols, I was President of the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project for 10 years. I built that organization from art on a wall to a corporation that was bringing in over $750,000 a year and donating well over $100,000 back to the community and between $200,000 and $300,000 into community programming. Do you think you could have done that. The money generated from the corporation wasn’t coming from donations, it was coming from the Surfing Madonna Beach Run and Encinitas Half Marathon, two event that I started and built. Revenue from those events are not considered donations by the IRS as the participants in those events are receiving a good or service. Most 501(c)(3)’s depend on donations, I modeled our organization so it didn’t depend on that.

First let me start by clarifying my salary. It’s not uncommon for 501c3 to pay their employees. I was an employee, the President (an officer). As a matter of fact all successful 501c3 pay their employees. L101, E101, C101, Leightag, YMCA, Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army, you name it and they have employees who are being paid. Surfing Madonna was no different. We had up to 5 employees at one point.

Second, the IRS determined that our salaries were fair and just by comparing them to other 501c3 whose President had a similar job role. As matter of fact I was entitled to a higher salary each year.

Third, our board always determined my salary, I never had the opportunity to vote on my salary, that would have been a conflict of interest. The board would often review my work, the revenue I was bringing in and determine whether or not my salary was justified. I was held to the highest standard, we regularly had an audit review, and we followed our By-Laws diligently.

Lastly, I poured a lot of money into this organization from 2011-2014 to get us off the ground, well over $100,000, money I never got back.

Over the years, our events brought million of dollars to the Encinitas businesses, in economic impact from our events. We donated over $700,000 to the community and over a million in programming.

Some of the things we accomplished. Free special needs surf camps that have benefited over 1,600 families, those camps are still happening. Floating beach wheelchairs in North County, scholarships to disadvantaged youth, marine mammal protection programming, mobility mats like the one you see at MLB for persons with disabilities, large donations to various organizations such as H2O Trash Patrol, supporting artist, the list goes on an on.

To this day, I still donate and help support Surfing Madonna financially, just a few months ago I made a personal donation of $1,000 towards the Surfing Madonna Special Needs Surf Camps. I also still advise the new President and organization. I love that organization because of the good it does for the community and those who are less fortunate.

With regard to the artist Mark Patterson…. Mark is my best friend, we’ve known each other for well over 20 years. He’s been sick for 5 years now. He lived with me and I took care of him from 2016 until 2021. I fed him, bathed him, took him on trips, and I visit him weekly at his Memory Care Facility. I love that man more than anything in the world. So to say I took advantage of Mark is absolutely wrong.

Bob Nichols board determined salaries at SMOP:

2011- $0
2012- $0
2013 – $0
2014- $9000
2015- $29,000
2016- $58,803
2017- $85,245
2018- $112,000
2019 – $123,000
2020 – $96,833
2021 – 0$
December 2021 resigned from SMOP

Deb1949 September 30, 2022 at 10:30 am

Why are you picking on Robert Nichols when there are over 35 people in this lawsuit against Blakespear? I’m neighbors with one of the former board members, who can’t say enough great things about Robert and the artist, Mark Pattersen. Do you have any sources of your claims? I’d love to see them. How exactly did Robert rip off the organization and the artist? or are you just going by that one article stating he made just over $100,000 a year? I’m not sure what line of work you’re in, but $100,000/year in Encinitas isn’t much. That’s a very strong accusation, so some sources would be appropriate.

Encinitas Lover September 29, 2022 at 6:17 pm

Catherine Blakespear’s campaign manager, Kevin Sabellico says that this is a right wing attack. How is that possible when 80% of the people who were blocked are registered Democrats. Regardless, any politician who violates their sacred and sworn oath of office to the people for years, should not be in office representing the people.

Encinitas Lover September 29, 2022 at 5:15 pm

It’s about time Blakespear was held accountable for her actions. She blocked over 30 residents from free speech, a direct violation of her sworn oath of office, she broke the law. If this is how she conducts city business then she has no business being in office. Blakespear lied, cheated and stole campaign funds in an attempt to settle, the judge will throw the book at her for this one. Nice job Carla DiMare, Robert Nichols, Garvin Walsh, Steve Meiche, Matt Wheeler and Jordan Marks!

Carlsbad92008 September 29, 2022 at 4:31 pm

Framed as a “stupid political stunt”? LOL – How about a violation of 1st amendment rights? How about squarely down the middle a SLAPP action. Trying to shut up opposing points of view is not cool here in the USA @Marco. Cori Schumacher tried and failed miserably to the tune of around 50K a year ago. ANTI-SLAPP all the way! Go residents of Encinitas. #GoGunderson

steve333 September 29, 2022 at 3:42 pm

As someone who was blocked even before I could comment at all, it is clear that Blakespear wants to be surrounded with a 100% approval rate for her administration, which is full of characters with very little moral fiber, starting with her campaign manager Sabellico and including Marco the developer lawyer whose comment is posted here.
How can we expect Catherine Blakespear to act honorably when she hires someone who blatantly lies as her Campaign spokesman?

Sabellico:
“I said it in July and I’ll say it again: this is just another in a long line of predictable politically-motivated, right-wing attacks on Mayor Blakespear designed to distract voters from Matt Gunderson’s extreme anti-choice record,” Sabellico wrote in a statement. ”

First of all, the vast majority of those opposed to Blakespear are Democrats or former Democrats so turned off to what is now The Developer Party of California that it made them switch to NPP, as I have. To label any oppostion as right wingers is absolutely ludicrous
Second, Matt Gunderson is Pro Choice and publicly stated it and even put in his Campaign website. Sabellico and Blakespear both know it and even this did not stop them from saying in a TV ad that she is the only Pro Choice candidate in the race, a blatant lie. Pretty disgraceful behavior from any politician.

Sabellico:
“There continues to be no merit or validity to these claims. The mayor’s actions and those of her campaign have always been and will always be in accordance with the California State Senate’s published social media policy, and even though this policy is non-binding on candidates, the mayor holds her campaign to the highest of ethical standards — and she always will.”

Blocking commenting on her official website is ethical? Lying about her intentions for Encinitas during her campaign, remember her slogan ‘Preserving Encinitas’ is ethical? Calling Matt MAGA and saying he isn’t Pro Choice when he stated it publicly is ethical? I can’t think of one reason to vote for her for any office.

If Blakespear and Sabellico think she is such a fine candidate with a fine record why does she refuse to debate Matt Gunderson? Why would anyone vote for a candidate that refuses to debate?
Is Democracy an irritant to her, does she expect to get anointed simply because of the D next to her name?

For me, I vote for the best candidate regardless of Party. I like Mike Levin so I’m voting for him, I think Nathan Hochman is far superior to Rob Bonta so I’m voting for him, and Matt Gunderson is far superior to Catherine Blakespear so I’m voting for him. It’s that simple.

[email protected] September 29, 2022 at 2:37 pm

This lawsuit was threatened weeks ago, so why was it only filed now? Maybe because they wanted a new hit piece closer to the election and of course the Coast News was more than happy to oblige? This entire suit rests on a judge deciding that the apology was not sincere enough for the plaintiffs, and that the payment of funds were supposed to come from a personal account rather than a bank account. I’ll go out on a limb and say, this lawsuit has not chance of succeeding. It’s a stupid political stunt, nothing more.

Deb1949 September 29, 2022 at 8:41 pm

[email protected], according to the article, she violated the settlement agreement terms, therefore, they are within full right to file the lawsuit. Despite how frivolous you feel it is, they are in the right. Are you sure you’re a good attorney? I didn’t think attorneys were so emotional.

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