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Calls are building for Irvine Mayor Christina Shea to apologize for blocking residents who posted comments she viewed as defamatory on her Facebook page under posts discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and her support of the Irvine Police Department.
Shea deleted several posts and comments from her Facebook page over the last week that discussed protests over the police killing of George Floyd, stating she would not reduce funding for the police department.
“I was asked today to cut funding for our Public Safety Dept and reallocate the money to community issues such as homelessness,” Shea said in one of the deleted posts. “I will not agree to reduce our public safety funding especially after seeing the violence we have endured as a nation this past week.”
Shea has also publicly said she is not in support of any protests calling the Irvine Police Department racist or using obscenities, and that she won’t defund the police for doing a “stellar job.”
The posts received massive response from the public, with hundreds of commenters going on to argue in the comments section over whether they supported Shea’s remarks.
Shea has argued multiple times that she deleted the posts and blocked the commenters because they called her a racist and made multiple threats, and that because it functions as a personal page it was within her rights to do that.
“They were calling me racist, using obscenities, they were threatening me, and I took the post down and I was told I have every right to do that on my private page,” Shea said.
But multiple legal groups are coming forward to argue that point.
In a letter released today, the law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman criticized Shea’s handling of the page, stating that the page acts as a public forum because it has open access and encourages discussion on public policy.
“If you open up the space, regardless of its public or private and you invite members of the public to respond, that’s by definition a public forum,” said Pedram Esfandiary, one of the lawyers who wrote the letter in a phone call with Voice of OC.
The new letter cited several residents by name and included comments the mayor blocked or deleted.
“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,” wrote commenter Lamar West, the firm’s client, under Shea’s post. “I can hear the racist ancestors of yours in this post and it’s sickening. Enjoy your position while it lasts.”
The letter also included another comment admonishing Shea’s choice to block “Black members of this community from your page.”
This is the third condemnation by a legal organization Shea has received over her Facebook page in the last two weeks, with the national Knight First Amendment Institute and the Thurgood Marshall Bar Association, Orange County’s only black bar also criticizing the mayor’s conduct.
The Thurgood Marshall Bar Association specifically pointed to the content of Shea’s deleted posts that referred to the protests as and the blocked commenters, but the other two organizations only criticized her decision to block opposing viewpoints.
West was also the one who reached out to the bar association about Shea’s facebook page, and they connected him with Esfandiary as a pro bono attorney.
Shea has maintained that all the accounts she blocked were “fake” and that the Thurgood Marshall Bar Association’s press conference and others are being orchestrated to damage her reputation ahead of the November elections by Councilmember Farrah Khan, who Shea has said is running for mayor.
“Lots of political pushback, just a sign of the times,” Shea said in a text to Voice of OC on Thursday.
Khan has declined to comment on whether or not she will be running for the mayor’s seat in November.
While both sides have argued clearly for their views, outside legal experts say the comments could remain a “grey area.”
“I would say that when a public official like that uses a facebook or other social media to comment on public issues, I think it does become a bit of a public forum,” said Karl Olson, a First Amendment and media lawyer from San Francisco. “Part of it’s an issue with what you can do with Facebook, and part of it’s a legal area, and that’s why it is a grey area.”
Olson said that if the posts were clearly intended as threatening to Shea’s health or family it would change the situation, but that people are within their rights to voice their opinions about the mayor’s conduct.
“For someone to call her a racist, that’s generally opinion. I think if you want to be the mayor of a city that kind of comes with the territory,” Olson said. “But I think there are definitely First Amendment concerns when a public official sort of stands on the soap box and uses an account for political purposes and then tries to stop other people from using it.”
What happens next remains unclear, as both the Knight First Amendment Institute and the Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman firm have said it’s too early to discuss potential litigation, but that it hasn’t been ruled out.
“I think the Mayor is running a very high risk of being involved in litigation given the extremely unconstitutional action and the number of interested parties,” Esfandiary said. “I would definitely entertain it if she decides not to unblock our client.”
Shea has told Voice of OC reporters that she has a lawyer reviewing the letters, but declined to comment further until her lawyer completed that review. She declined to disclose who was reviewing the letters.
“When you have a situation where not that many people are going to go to a city council meeting but everyone is going to see her Facebook page, it is troubling when the mayor tries to censor dissenting views,” Olson said.
“It is a grey area, and I don’t know what a court would do.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.