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