ESCONDIDO — President Donald Trump has captured news headlines for blocking U.S. citizens on social media, generating a successful plaintiff’s lawsuit on First Amendment grounds. But social media blocking has extended far beyond the nation’s capital and into San Diego County’s government.
Escondido Mayor Sam Abed serves as the latest example of a public official in San Diego County blocking constituents in response to criticism on Facebook. In response to the blocking, Escondido resident Benjamin Martinez has filed a lawsuit against Abed on First Amendment grounds, as well, paralleling the lawsuit against President Trump.
That lawsuit was filed on Aug. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, as first reported by NBC 7 San Diego.
“Members of the public who do not air their concerns about ABED and keep their criticisms to themselves are allowed to post comments on his Facebook website,” reads the complaint. “Plaintiff is not so lucky; he has been completely blocked from posting comments on ABED’s Facebook website — critical, negative, or otherwise.”
Martinez believes, as laid out in the complaint, that his First Amendment rights were infringed upon because he was denied his “rights of free expression and to criticize the government as guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” he argued in the complaint.
The lawsuit also proclaims that Martinez’s California state constitutional rights were violated. Martinez has asked to be repaid for damages suffered and attorney fees if he wins the lawsuit.
Public records requests obtained by NBC7 reveal that Abed had also previously blocked several other critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego. It was also revealed that public officials throughout San Diego County, dozens in total and a quarter of them when looked at as an aggregate group, have blocked constituents on social media. Those include several city officials within The Coast News’ North County coverage area.
For example, Oceanside City Councilwoman Esther Sanchez blocked two accounts on Facebook. In Vista, City Councilman Joe Green has blocked at eight different accounts on Facebook and Twitter.
And in Encinitas, Mayor Catherine Blakespear has blocked four different people on her personal Facebook account. Encinitas Councilmember Tony Kranz said that he only blocked “trolls and “haters” on Facebook and Twitter, but had restored access to those individuals after a public records request was filed, according to NBC7.
“Sadly, the number of thin-skinned politicians in this county appears to be growing,” Martinez’s attorney Cory Briggs previously told NBC7. “They invite everyone to ‘like’ them on Facebook or ‘follow’ them on Twitter … but as soon as someone criticizes them, even when done factually and civilly, they block the person from the forum. That’s like locking the doors to city hall because you don’t like the messenger, even before you hear the message. The First Amendment does not allow such retaliation.”
Beyond legal implications, Briggs said that blocking on social media has an impact on the quality of back-and-forth civic discourse, as well.
“Politicians come up with excuses for not having to listen to people who disagree with them,” Briggs stated previously. “And that’s one of the problems our country faces right now is you can’t get adults to sit down and talk civilly when they disagree.”
Briggs is also representing plaintiffs in two other similar lawsuits filed elsewhere in San Diego County.
Mayor Abed did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.