Federal judge rules Gardiner violated rights of critics on his aldermanic Facebook page
by BRIAN NADIG
A federal judge has ruled Alderman James Gardiner (45th) violated the First Amendment rights of some of his critics by blocking them from his official aldermanic Facebook page or having comments critical of him deleted.
A trial will determine what type of damages Gardiner could have to pay to the six defendants, Pete Czosnyka, Dominick Maino, Adam Vavrick, James Suh, Steve Held and Peter Barash. The defendants are among Gardiner’s harshest critics.
James Suh unsuccessfully ran against Gardner in the 2023 aldermanic race and has a second lawsuit pending against Gardiner, alleging that the alderman abused his powers by trying to retaliate against him. Suh had organized a protest criticizing Gardiner for his opposition to a Six Corners development proposal.
Gardiner was re-elected earlier this year, receiving 53.6 percent of the vote in a runoff election against Megan Mathias.
It is not not clear if Gardiner plans to appeal the decision, but he reportedly could be looking at paying damages and the plaintiffs’ attorney expenses totaling around $100,000, depending on the outcome of the trial, based on another case in Illinois. Other similar cases in Illinois are pending.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Weinberg, who worked on the case with civil rights attorney Adele Nicholas, said that an official Facebook page of an elected official is a “public forum,” and officials need to establish “non-discriminatory rules of content” for their social media sites if they plan to delete comments or block certain people from posting comments.
Comments that include vulgarity and threats of physical violence are among those that can removed, but comments that simply criticize an official must be left alone, Weinberg said.
A former Gardiner aide testified that he was aware of a Chicago Board of Ethics opinion in 2019 that advises alderpersons on the appropriate rules for deleting comments or restricting access, Weinberg said.
It is not unusual for alderpersons to delete comments posted by others on their social media sites.
Social media is an important tool for constituents wanting to petition and interact with their elected officials, and government officials should not be allowed to determine who can and cannot participate in these forums, Weinberg said.
U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman ruled that Gardiner cannot block any users or restrict any comments on his Facebook page until he sets a “content moderation policy” that conforms with the First Amendment. Currently none of the six defendants are banned from Gardiner’s page, as any restrictions were lifted after the lawsuit was filed in 2021.
The City of Chicago was initially a defendant in the lawsuit but was later removed after it was ruled the city was not responsible for Gardiner’s actions.