A man blocked from the Facebook page of the Irvine, Calif., mayor may continue with his First Amendment free-speech lawsuit, a federal district judge has ruled in denying the mayor’s motion to dismiss.
Lamar West, a resident of Orange County, contended that Irvine mayor Christina Shea blocked him from her official Facebook page because he had criticized her comments about Black Lives Matter.
As explained in an earlier story, West had responded to Shea’s negative comments about Black Lives Matter with the following posts:
“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 last (sic) …”
After being blocked, West sued Shea in federal court, alleging a First Amendment violation. Shea filed a motion to dismiss, contending that her Facebook profile was not a public forum. However, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled in his Nov. 12 order in West v. Sheathat West “alleges sufficient facts to make it plausible that Defendant’s Profile was a public forum.”
Furthermore, the judge noted that even if the Facebook profile is considered a nonpublic forum, a government official’s actions still must be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.
Shea also argued that she was entitled to qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects government officials from liability unless they violate clearly established constitutional law.
“At this early stage, the Court cannot conclude that qualified immunity applies,” Carney wrote. “Plaintiff plausibly alleges that Defendant blocked him from her Profile solely because he expressed a view she did not like. Governmental viewpoint discrimination has long been prohibited by the First Amendment.”
Shea also had argued that she was entitled to immunity under the Communications Decency Act, a provision of which provides Good Samaritan protection to interactive service providers who in good faith remove material that is obscene or harassing.
Shea contended that this section protected her since West had engaged in what she called harassing communications. But Carney noted that West has alleged he was blocked because Shea disagreed with his viewpoints.
“To grant Defendant’s motion to dismiss based on CDA immunity, then, the Court would have to believe that Congress intended CDA immunity to immunize viewpoint discrimination,” the judge explained. “The Court is not so persuaded.”
David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let The Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).