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Anti-fracking Activist Wins First Amendment Lawsuit Against Former Lafayette Mayor

March 5, 2019 GMT

Former Lafayette Mayor Christine Berg has conceded that she violated Cliff Willmeng’s First Amendment rights when she blocked and removed his comments from her official Facebook page.

The offer of judgement, announced Tuesday and in which the city of Lafayette also is named a defendant, agrees to pay Willmeng $5,000 (plus attorney fees) in restitution for the infringement.

According to the lawsuit filed in January, the incidents in question reach back to a March 2017 exchange, when Willmeng, a Lafayette resident and anti-fracking activist, commented on a number of posts on Berg’s Facebook page in support of the city’s Climate Bill of Rights, a radical measure that proponents say essentially bans fracking in Lafayette.

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Those and subsequent comments resulted in Berg blocking him from her page and from commenting on further posts, according to the suit, which said she also deleted the comments in question.

“With government that is committed to isolating itself from public accountability and denying climate science, social media has become the most powerful forum for debate and discussion nationwide,” Willmeng said in a prepared statement. “We are thrilled with the outcome.”

It’s the second legal win in recent months for Willmeng, who last year was joined by Marine Corps reservist Eddie Asher in a lawsuit against Thornton Mayor Pro-Tem Jan Kulmann for essentially the same thing, alleging that Kulmann — who was a proponent of oil and gas interests — violated free speech rights by censoring her government social media page.

Kullman in October agreed to unblock Willmeng and Asher.

The judgement for this case isn’t quite as tidy as with Kulmanm’s, Willmeng’s attorney Andrew McNulty said Tuesday.

While Kulmanm entered into a settlement, agreeing to pay Willmeng and Asher roughly $30,000 and entering into a permanent injunction promising not to ban them from her official social media accounts again, Berg has rather just pleaded guilty in a sense, McNulty said. And with her out of office after a surprise resignation in January, unblocking him from her account “is kind of a moot point now because the page really doesn’t have as much power,” he added.

Tuesday’s judgement adds to a growing list of similar precedent-setting rulings.

A federal judge in Manhattan in 2018 found President Donald Trump’s proclivity for blocking Twitter users who criticized him and his administration was unconstitutional.

Because the president’s Twitter feed is a public forum, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald wrote in her decision, he violated the First Amendment when he or an aide blocked seven plaintiffs from viewing and responding to his tweets.

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Lafayette last year approved a set of social media rules for its elected leaders in the wake of a similar free speech lawsuit in Virginia. The rules dictated that council members could not limit a resident’s ability to view or post comments on their official social media pages.

Immediate efforts to reach Berg for comment were unsuccessful.

This story will be updated.

Anthony Hahn: 303-473-1422, hahna@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/_anthonyhahn

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