Freedom of Speech Civil Rights Suit: A Win For All U.S. Citizens

A recent settlement in the Federal District Court provides all U.S. citizens greater protections for Freedom of Speech. Attorney Timothy Kassouni of Kassouni Law states, “This is a win for all citizens and their constitutionally protected freedom of speech.”

In this important case, Timothy Kassouni’s client served on the Peninsula Community Planning Board (PCPB). This is an advisory position, and the client volunteered his time in service of the San Diego community. As an elected Board Committee member, the client served the City of San Diego. At the time, the City of San Diego had a policy preventing anyone who served on a City committee from endorsing political candidates. Specifically, the policy stated that “Development and promotion of ‘slates’ of candidates is contrary to the intent of Council Policy 600-24 and is not allowed.”

An election was scheduled to fill several positions on the PCPM. Before the election, the client prepared and circulated a flyer with the headline, “Tell Planning Board to work for you.” The client did all the work at his own expense. This flyer mentioned several issues the client believed should be addressed as well as the names and qualifications of seven candidates he personally recommended for election to the board. The recommendations did not mention the party affiliation of any candidate, and the flier did not suggest endorsements were made in any official capacity as a member of the board.

Prior to the election, the client was “warned” that he faced “consequences” unless he stayed off social media and unless he only distributed flyers to persons he knew. The PCPB chair also suggested that the client resigns from the board in order to avoid damage to his reputation.

The PCPB chair even disseminated a memo to all PCPB members that accused the client of attempting to act in an official capacity as the PCPB spokesperson in the community. The board denied the client the opportunity to resolve the issue in an informal or confidential manner and the opportunity to obtain Public Records Act documents to support his own defense. The client, who is co-founder of a City park that has been on the drawing board for 27 years, was also threatened with the loss of his position as Parks & Recreation Committee chair/liaison. Ultimately, the client was removed from his position and received threats of removal from other positions.

Timothy Kassouni Recognizes First Amendment Violation and Fights for Client

After hearing about and assessing the situation, Timothy Kassouni immediately recognized that the actions of the PCPB board chair hampered his client’s ability to communicate with community organizations as a volunteer and tainted other PCPB members’ opinions of the client in advance of disciplinary proceedings, which damaged the client’s professional reputation.

Timothy Kassouni filed a lawsuit for a deprivation of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and by Article I, Section 2 of the California Constitution. In the suit, Timothy Kassouni argued that the PCPB policy was incongruous with both Federal and California Constitutional provisions because it comprised an illegal prior restraint of speech by purporting to ban the endorsement of slates of candidates before anyone has engaged in such expression. Citing recent federal law, Timothy Kassouni argued that such prior restraints on free speech are presumptively unconstitutional.

Kassouni argued that endorsing candidates for public office, “is at the core of speech protected by the First Amendment,” quoting Sanders County Republican Central Committee v. Bullock, 698 F.3d 741, 745 (9th Cir. 2012). The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that “[t]he First Amendment has its fullest and most urgent application to speech uttered during a campaign for political office.” Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310, 339-40 (2010). Kassouni argued that any attempt by the government to prohibit or restrict such speech triggers the strictest judicial scrutiny. Wolfson v. Concannon, 811 F.3d 1176, 1181 (9th Cir. 2016).

Timothy Kassouni argued that the city policy, both on its face and as applied to the client, sought to prohibit and/or penalize the free expression of political speech, notwithstanding its constitutionally protected status. Moreover, he argued that requiring the client to comply with a policy provision as a condition of retaining his position as a member of the PCPB comprised an unconstitutional condition. Kassouni Law contended irreparable injury to the client’s reputation, as damages alone could not fully compensate the client for the ensuing harm. This threat of injury from Defendants’ willful violation of Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights required temporary, preliminary, and permanent injunctive relief.

Timothy Kassouni Prevails for Free Speech and the Client

The City of San Diego quickly settled the case, and Kassouni Law was successful in garnering the client’s reinstatement to the PCPB board, obtained a revocation of the free speech limitation law from the City of San Diego, and recovered attorney fees. This was a win not just for the client of Timothy Kassouni, but for freedom of expression for all U.S. citizens, as the same arguments can be made in other regions throughout the United States.

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