ENCINITAS — A group of residents continues to seek legal remedies against Mayor Catherine Blakespear over her alleged censorship of critics on social media, recently filing a new notice of intent to move forward with litigation unless previous settlement terms are satisfied.
San Diego civil trial attorney Carla DiMare filed an amended notice on July 14 with the city of Encinitas on behalf of Robert Nichols, former chairman of the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, and approximately 28 other “citizens’ rights advocates.”
DiMare, who replaces Carlsbad-based attorney Michael Curran, claims her client’s constitutional rights were violated when Blakespear restricted access to her official mayoral Facebook page and blocked certain users for expressing dissenting opinions.
The notice seeks an official apology from the mayor and $5,000 in attorneys fees in compensation.
In May, Nichols and the other plaintiffs filed a government tort claim against Blakespear and the city of Encinitas after the residents claimed Blakespear had violated the terms of a previous settlement agreement that had been reached between the two parties.
The mayor had agreed to issue a public apology to the residents on her official Facebook page, but Nichols and others criticized that apology for being disingenuous. Curran, the plaintiff’s attorney at the time, informed the city the settlement agreement was void and his clients would be moving forward with a tort claim.
The tort claim is against Blakespear, both as an official and a private citizen, and the city of Encinitas. The city will have 45 days to review the complaint to accept the claim and negotiate with the plaintiffs, deny the claim’s validity, or ignore the criticism altogether.
“Ms. Blakespear’s voiding of the settlement agreement or refusal to comply with the settlement agreement puts her in conflict with the city and damages the city,” the amended notice reads.
“The city could be held vicariously liable for its mayor’s misconduct, including voiding the settlement agreement and/or refusing to comply with the settlement agreement which she signed while acting within the scope of her employment with the city, which damaged my client (and other similarly situated people).”
DiMare stressed that her firm would not hesitate to take the city to court if Blakespear did not agree to the settlement terms.
“Mayor Catherine Blakespear deliberately deprived Encinitas residents of their constitutional right to free speech because she disagreed with them. Then she breached a settlement agreement that she signed,” DiMare said. “She also unjustifiably criticized the good people of Encinitas with her untrue, polarizing rant in May of 2022. She also tried to have her campaign pay for what she has characterized as a personal initiative.
“Blakespear is unfit to hold any political office, in my opinion. She should honor the settlement agreement and stop dragging down the great city of Encinitas with her bad behavior, otherwise, we will file a lawsuit after the amended notice period has passed.”
If the tort claim goes to state court, DiMare said that her firm would seek damages from the city in excess of $100,000.
But in comments made to The Coast News, Kevin Sabellico, Blakespear’s campaign manager in her race for the 38th State Senate District seat, said the mayor has no intention of agreeing to the new settlement terms offered in the amended notice, arguing the campaign had already satisfied the terms of the previous settlement agreement provided by Curran.
“This is just another politically motivated, right-wing attack on Mayor Blakespear. This is nothing more than a frivolous and blatantly partisan lawsuit,” Sabellico said. “Mayor Blakespear is not a senator, but as a candidate for the State Senate, she holds herself to the same high standards outlined in the California State Senate’s social media policy. The senate’s social media policy does not allow individuals to post comments which are harassing, abusive or spam. Repeated violations may result in the account losing access.”
The city of Encinitas declined to comment on the potential litigation.
In April, Curran submitted a cease-and-desist letter to Blakespear on behalf of the plaintiffs, requesting that Blakespear allow residents to freely exchange their views on her Facebook posts without being blocked or having their comments deleted.
In response, Blakespear unblocked Nichols and others and eventually agreed to settle under the previously mentioned settlement terms while not admitting any wrongdoing.
While it is not illegal for a private individual to restrict public access to their personal social media accounts, recent federal rulings have determined the First Amendment can be violated if an elected officeholder restricts access to their social media page that is used in an official capacity.
Since Blakespear uses her official mayoral Facebook page to discuss city and regional business, all speech on such a forum is subject to First Amendment protections and free speech protections under California’s constitution, Curran and DiMare have both argued.
In her apology post via Facebook, Blakespear denied using the page in an official government capacity.
“My campaign social media page is not an official city-sponsored or city-funded social media page, and no decisions are being made by the government on my social media pages,” Blakespear wrote. “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.”
In comments made to The Coast News, Nichols again criticized the apology as insincere and disparaging toward himself and other residents. Nichol also argued Blakespear’s censorship of critics on social media was a longstanding pattern of abusive behavior that forced the situation into the legal realm.
“Mayor Catherine Blakespear has willingly and knowingly been breaking the law and sworn oath of office for years,” Nichols said. “Over the years, many residents, including myself, have brought this to her attention and asked her to stop. She was given ample warning and refused to stop, continuing to delete public comments and block people from her official ‘Mayor Catherine Blakespear’ page.
“In the settlement agreement (Blakespear) signed, she was asked to apologize to those she blocked and make a settlement payment from her personal account. She did neither. Instead, she delivered an offensive and disparaging rant that labeled the residents she blocked as dangerous, threatening, and abusive. Some of these residents include a local firefighter, schoolteacher, several candidates for local office, a person with disabilities, a former planning commissioner, and concerned parents. These aren’t dangerous and threatening trolls, as she insinuates — these are concerned community members.”