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A national first amendment organization sent a letter condemning recent action on Facebook by Irvine Mayor Christina Shea, when she blocked several commenters on her personal page that attempted to discuss public policy.
The Knight First Amendment Institute is based out of New York’s Columbia University, and has routinely filed litigation against public officials around the country for blocking public discussion, including a successful suit against President Donald Trump when he attempted to argue that he could censor comments on his personal Twitter account.
Shea has admitted to deleting roughly 15-20 comments and blocking accounts in the last week on her Facebook page after posts she put up discussing the Black Lives Matter movement received negative feedback, where she said several threats and obscenities were directed at her.
In their letter to the mayor, the institute argued that because Shea’s personal page is open to the public and she regularly posts about public policy, it functions as a public forum and not a personal page.
“Multiple federal courts have held that a public official who uses a social media account for official purposes, and allows the general public to comment or post replies to that account, has created a public forum and may not block individuals from that forum based on viewpoint,” the letter said.
Shea regularly uses the page to discuss public policy decisions, and interacts with commenters on the page.
“As federal appeals courts have held, when public officials use ostensibly personal accounts for official purposes, those accounts reflect government action under the First Amendment,” the letter said. “As news reports have documented, several other individuals have also been blocked from your account.”
Meenakshi Krishnan, a Legal Fellow with the institute, said their objective is to have everyone the mayor blocked unblocked, and if possible to restore the deleted comments .
“Even if the public official characterizes the account as personal, the court looks if it’s used as an extension of her office,” Krishnan said. “Mayor Shea uses this supposedly personal account to discuss city posts.”
Krishnan said that potential litigation is “too far down the road to discuss,” but that it hasn’t been ruled out.
In a phone call with Voice of OC yesterday afternoon, Shea said she only blocked commenters that were “fake.”
“They aren’t real,” Shea said. “I don’t know how they can do that but they’re not actually people. I don’t know how they do it.”
The institute got involved after they received an email from Nikka Aminmadani, 19, an Irvine resident since she was two years old, who said her comments on the page were blocked.
Aminmadani’s account has been active for over eight years, although most of her posts are shared between just friends according to her.
Shea said that all the commenters she blocked used obscene language, and reaffirmed that she had blocked them and that her staff does not manage her personal page.
“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. “We have every right to remove obscenities and threats.”
In the letter to Shea, the institute copied some of Aminmadani’s comments under the post verbatim. Her posts were a criticism of now deleted posts promoting the All Lives Matter slogan, which members of the Black Lives Matter movement have repeatedly criticized as insensitive and irreflective of the problem.
“I want to preface this with saying that this comes out of a place of respect and an attempt to help you learn because you have a lot to learn,” Aminmadani wrote. You should first promote for police to treat black Americans with respect and dignity so that they are able to walk out of their homes without the fear of experiencing systemic racism in the same way that you have this freedom.”
In her second post, she advised Shea to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, without using any obscenities.
“Please use your platform to uplift marginalized groups instead of promoting the false narrative that all people are already equal. It’s sad, but not all races are treated equally,” Aminmadani wrote.
In a phone call with Voice of OC, Aminmadani said she was blocked from the page less than an hour after her comments were posted, and that when she asked friends to look at the page for her comments they had been deleted.
“Her blocking me does impact my ability to keep up with the mayor’s work and impedes my ability to express my views,” Aminmadani said.
“I don’t think what I said was threatening at all. I think what’s really important here is to acknowledge that the mayor should engage with all her constituents and not just the ones that agree with her.”
The posts Aminmadani commented on were later completely deleted by Shea, which she has repeatedly defended as within her rights on a personal page.
“When I’m talking, I go on my page and say I’m the mayor of Irvine, and this is my opinion. I’m a citizen of Irvine and I have a right to freedom of speech. Or when you become an elected official do you lose your free speech rights? I don’t think you do,” Shea said. “I’m not an attorney, I can understand there are some concerns, but no one has to tolerate threats or obscenities.”
Aminmadani also shared that she had heard from several other friends that their comments on the page were deleted, and that some of them were also blocked.
“I think it’s important to be able to engage with elected officials,” Aminmadani said. “I was very intentional to try and respectfully voice my opinions on the matter.”
“I’m an engaged constituent, I care about Irvine.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.