By Miki Mullor
The City of Sammamish and its communications manager, Celia Wu, have been named defendants in a lawsuit in federal court alleging infringement of the First Amendment for ongoing censorship of protected speech on the city’s Facebook page.
The plaintiffs in the case, Sarah Hawes Kimesy, Tarul Kode Tripathi and Catherine Freudenberg, are asking the court for an injunction preventing the city from continuing to violate the Constitution and an award of damages, including punitive damages.
A hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for October 22 in front of Federal Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle. (update: the hearing has been rescheduled to November 5)
The Sammamish Comment will provide a special coverage for this development story.
Censorship on City’s Facebook page
The focus of the lawsuit is an alleged repeated and continuing censorship The plaintiffs accuse Wu, the city’s communications manager, and other officials of deleting any and all comments that are critical of the city government under the guise of enforcing “rules.” (Wu is a former member of the Sammamish Comment’s editorial board.)
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke, the city began conducting its City Council meetings online by streaming a live video on its Facebook page. The lawsuit alleges that since June 2020, Kimsey and Fruedenberg began attending these meetings. While watching the meetings, the two would post comments on the meeting’s live video comments’ section. The City deleted most or all of Kimsey’s comments and some of Freudenberg’s comments that were critical of the city government.
Kimsey is a former city employee who worked in the communications department. In 2019, Kimsey was at the center of a controversy of spreading misinformation against Deputy Mayor Christie Malchow during her re-election campaign:
Freudenberg is a former Sammamish resident, currently living in Bainbridge Island.
The lawsuit lists numerous instances between June and August 2020 of deletion of Facebook comments made by Kimsey and Freudenberg.
“Blue Thin Line” controversy
In a separate incident that took place in February 2021, the city shared a post on its Facebook page on behalf of the Sammamish Police Foundation, calling for your youth to become a Police Explorer. Plaintiff Tripathi took exception with the fact that the Sammamish Police Foundation utilizes the “thin blue line” flag, which “originally stood for solidarity and professional pride for police officers. However, it has also been used in association with the Blue Lives Matter movement, white supremcaists,” according to the lawsuit.
“This is disturbing, It’s Black History Month. The Sammamish Police Foundation continues to use a symbol indicative of support/ solidarity with white supremacist groups. Do Better,” Tripathi posted. The lawsuit alleges the comment was deleted by the city.
In 2017, Tripathi was at the center of another controversy, when she alleged Sammamish Police officers dismissed her claim of a hate crime during a road rage incident that occurred in Issaquah:
Twist of fate – self inflicting wound by the City
In a twist of fate that may not look good for the city, City Manager David Rudat admitted to this author that deleting Facebook comments on the city’s Facebook page is a violation of the First Amendment:
“The City of Sammamish’s Facebook page is a public forum. As a public forum, the City’s authority to delete comments is quite limited. Doing so would in most cases violate the First Amendment. The City’s policy accordingly includes only very limited circumstances under which comments can be deleted (e.g., obscenity and “fighting words”),” – Rudat wrote in a June 10, 2020, email:
A week later, Rudat’s staff allegedly began deleting Facebook comments of Kimsey and Fruedenberg.
Mayor Karen Moran calls to review city policies
At the end of City Council meeting held last night, Mayor Karen Moran addressed the pending litigation by voicing support for free speech and the First Amendment:
“Free speech is the cornerstone of our democracy. We all recognize the value and importance of dissenting opinions and voices, and we always want to make sure that all of our residents have their rights protected to speak their minds freely through whatever medium they choose to use.” – said Moran, “as we move forward I would suggest we closely examine any city policies we have protecting free speech to ensure all of our first amendment rights are preserved and protected.”
The City administration did not comment on this story.
The lawsuit is captioned Kimsey et al v. City of Sammamish et al in the Western District of Washington, 2:21-cv-01264-MJP.
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