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People accuse SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon of violating First Amendment rights for blocking social media accounts

harmon instagram page.jpg
Posted at 5:39 PM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-08 13:43:33-05

The social media behavior of an elected official in San Luis Obispo is being called into question after a number of people say they were blocked from her accounts for disagreeing with her.

In response to a batch of public records requests made in December, Mayor Heidi Harmon submitted screenshots that show 58 accounts were completely blocked from her Facebook page, at least 25 accounts were blocked from her Instagram account and only people she followed on Instagram were allowed to comment on her posts.

Some residents say their First Amendment rights were violated when Mayor Harmon blocked them from her social media accounts.

“We’re talking about simply disagreeing with her or, in my case, correcting her on something she got wrong and literally getting cut off and blocked because of that. Turns out, it’s illegal,” said Adam Montiel, a local radio personality.

Montiel says Mayor Harmon blocked him from her Instagram account @heidiismighty after he corrected her on a CDC COVID-19 guideline posted on March 30.

Harmon has since deleted the post, but Montiel says he was blocked for nearly nine months.

“These accounts were set up privately by herself, but when she started doing city business with them, those lines got blurred,” Montiel said.

Federal judges have made the law clear in similar cases involving former President Donald Trump, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the mayor of Irvine.

“The First Amendment prohibits an official who uses a social media account for government purposes from excluding people from an “otherwise open online dialogue” because they say things that the official finds objectionable," Judge Barrington D. Parker, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said in a ruling that prevented Trump from blocking critics on Twitter.

Before a social media hiatus, Mayor Harmon posted to both her Facebook and Instagram accounts about government policies such as the city's COVID-19 response, immigration, climate change, and equality.

Since she posted that content, constitutional lawyers say it creates a public forum for community members - a forum where public comment must be allowed.

“A public official has an obligation to listen to people who disagree with them. It’s just that simple,” said constitutional attorney Stew Jenkins.

However, there are legitimate reasons an officeholder could block or restrict someone.

"The immunity is the ability to remove individuals who were logging in were threatening, harassing or posting lewd or lascivious types of comments,” Jenkins said.

In an email, Christine Dietrick, the city's attorney, said Mayor Harmon blocked users for a variety of reasons including "profanity, personal misogynistic or racist remarks directed at the mayor or at other commenters on the mayor’s platforms, and material perceived as implicit or explicit threats or personal attacks..."

One Arroyo Grande woman says she's been blocked since 2016 for giving a suggestion.

“If you don't agree with [Mayor Harmon], you're gone. I understand if she had a desire to block trolls, that's tempting, I get it, but unfortunately, you just can't do it,” said Marilyn Rossa.

Full access to Harmon's accounts was restored to users on December 21, according to the city attorney.

However, Montiel questions why screenshots of her blocked list submitted in response to public records requests appear zoomed-in and cropped compared to a normal screengrab example.

“It was an incomplete list. Like, I know people who were blocked who weren’t on that list,” he said.

When asked about these submissions, Dietrick responded by saying, “The Mayor confirmed that that the screenshots provided included all blocks from her accounts and did not omit any responsive material related to the request received by the City.”

Mayor Harmon's latest Instagram post says she's taking a break from social media. Her Facebook and Instagram accounts are now gone.

“We would like to know how and why this was able to happen against the law, and how can [the city] assure residents that this won’t happen again,” Montiel said.

Montiel says he doesn't plan on suing Mayor Harmon or the city.

Constitutional attorneys say there could be civil or even criminal penalties if evidence was destroyed or incompletely sent under the Public Records Act.

Mayor Harmon did not respond to KSBY’s request for an interview.