Irvine taxpayers paid out $120,000 at the end of 2020 to settle a lawsuit over former mayor Christina Shea’s blocking of constituents on her personal Facebook page.
Shea was first criticized for the blocking last June during the protests following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, when she said she would not lower or change the Irvine police department’s funding following emails from members of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We have been named one of the safest cities in America for 15 years in a row and 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 said in a since deleted post on her Facebook page.
Over 150 people commented under the post, several of whom were blocked and had their comments deleted by Shea, who said their responses were defamatory. That kicked off several condemnations from protestors and organizations, including the Thurgood Marshall Bar Assn., Orange County’s only Black bar association.
One of those blocked was Lamar West, who decided to sue Shea for a violation of his First Amendment rights. West’s lawyers argued that despite the page functioning as Shea’s personal page, its public status and the fact that Shea regularly discussed public policy in posts meant that it functioned as a public forum.
The lawsuit defense costs fell on taxpayers due to West’s contention that the blocking was a government action, according to a press release on Irvine’s website, forcing the city to step in. West received almost $40,000, and the lawsuit cost the city an additional $80,000 in legal fees.
The city released a statement about the lawsuit that criticized Shea’s actions, despite the settlement agreement stating the city and Shea admitted no wrongdoing.
“There can be no question that this whole situation could have been avoided had former Mayor Shea not blocked the users and deleted the posts,” the statement read. “Putting aside the question of what is ‘legal,’ the city believes that former Mayor Shea’s actions did not meet the city’s standards and expectations.”
In a phone call on Monday, Shea called the lawsuit “frivolous,” stating she’d never violated West’s rights and that if she had been reelected in November the city would have gone to court.
“I was not able to go and make that determination, but if I had stayed on council I would’ve continued the lawsuit to the end and even brought money into the coffers of the city,” Shea said.
Shea also took aim at her former colleagues Councilmen Mike Carroll, Anthony Kuo and newly-elected mayor Farrah Khan for their decision to waive the city’s legal privilege and publicly discuss the suit.
“They vacated privilege, which you never do…and they’re trying to put the blame on me when there was no blame even at the end of the settlement,” Shea said. “I really don’t have a lot of sense of maturity or experience with this new group. I would pull (council members) Tammy Kim and Larry Agran from that group; they seem to have a professional approach to local government.”
Shea isn’t the only public figure in OC to be criticized for censorship on social media. Mission Viejo Councilman Greg Raths also was faulted by constituents during his Congressional race last year for blocking and or deleting posts on social media that condemned his conduct.
“The city of Irvine holds itself to high standards,” the city’s statement said in closing. “It encourages robust discussion of important public issues, and it disapproves of actions that silence the voices of those with opposing points of view.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.