City hall embroiled in two lawsuits for censoring residents on social media
The City of Sammamish has now been sued twice over the past two months for allegedly censoring residents and violating the First Amendment protection of free speech.
On Oct. 28, former city communications manager Kate Langsdorf filed a lawsuit against the city in King County Superior Court, alleging that City Manager Dave Rudat fired her for raising concerns that the city was violating the First Amendment and the Public Records Act.
Langsdorf alleges that on May 22, 2020, Celia Wu, who currently leads communications for city hall, revealed that she was communicating with Rudat’s daughter, Stephanie, and Mayor Karen Moran through personal emails to discuss what to do about the 2020 Sammamish Farmer’s Market, with the expressed purpose of avoiding a pending public records request from the Chamber of Commerce, the organization that puts on the market.
According to Langsdorf, Wu failed to enter the email chain into the public record when requested to. Langsdorf filed a complaint with HR that was brought to the attention of City Manager Rudat, but this was never acted on.
Mayor Moran eventually discouraged Eastside Catholic School from hosting the farmer’s market, forcing the Chamber to find a location outside of city limits.
Langsdorf’s attorney, employment litigator Sara Amies, said that the suit will establish whether Langsdorf was unfairly terminated as a whistleblower who was acting on the belief that the city was doing something unlawfully. A partner suit filed on Sept. 15 will investigate whether the city’s actions were, in fact, illegal.
In the partner suit, Kimsey et al v. City of Sammamish, local residents Sarah Kimsey, Tarul Tripathi and Catherine Freudenberg allege that City Communications Manager Celia Wu unconstitutionally deleted comments criticizing the government from the city’s official Facebook page. The plaintiffs are suing for damages and recognition that the city violated the Constitution.
Together, the suits establish a lengthy narrative of the city’s “repeated and ongoing” practice of deleting citizen comments from the official Facebook page, especially those critical of city leadership.
In her wrongful termination lawsuit, Langsdorf alleges that on May 22, 2020, Wu admitted to deleting several critical comments from the Facebook page. After Langsdorf told her that it was illegal to delete these comments, Wu claimed to have deleted only a single comment. When the city’s HR department followed up on Langsdorf’s report of the incident, Wu allegedly denied deleting any comments at all.
From 2020 to as recently as July 2021, Kimsey, Freudenberg and Tripathi detailed almost weekly deletions of their comments on the city’s Facebook posts and virtual city council meetings that were uploaded to the official city Facebook page. In most of the described cases, the city provided no explanation for the comments’ removal.
Langsdorf alleges that she was first made aware of additional instances of comment deletions on July 22, when a city IT employee informed her that the city, presumably Wu, had hidden one of Kimsey’s comments on the Facebook page. Langsdorf reported the incident to HR and the city attorney. The next day, after being informed about the HR report, City Manager Rudat allegedly told city staff not to contact the city attorney.
Kimsey and Freudenberg’s comments continued to be deleted, and on July 29, Langsdorf was informed that Rudat was firing her, effective Aug. 12. Rudat attributed the decision to budget concerns and the pandemic, despite the fact that Langsdorf’s contract had been extended through the end of November just days prior, on July 10.
On July 31, Langsdorf says she called the city’s whistleblower hotline, which sent a report to the city HR department. On Aug. 3, Langsdorf met with HR to point out her whistleblower report. Two hours later, she received a letter signed by City Manager Rudat claiming that her complaint would not be investigated because it was unsubstantiated and whistleblower privileges did not apply to contract employees. Langsdorf was then fired. Comment deletions continued.
On Oct. 12, Rudat expressed his intent to fight the Kimsey lawsuit in court through a statement on the city’s website, but declined to provide further comment on the issue. The issue was also briefly addressed at an Oct. 5 city council meeting.
“Free speech is the cornerstone of our democracy,” said Mayor Moran, expressing a commitment to examine city policies on free speech to preserve constitutional rights.
“Then maybe when the citizens complained, we should have listened to them so that they didn’t have to sue,” said Councilmember Pam Stuart in response.
Both parties have sought outside legal representation for the Kimsey suit, which will be heard in federal district court. The plaintiffs opted for representation by Joe Shaeffer and Rebecca Singleton of MacDonald, Hoague & Bayless. The firm specializes in civil rights and is known for representing plaintiffs in multimillion-dollar landmark cases such as US v. Seattle, which concerned the murder of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams by Seattle Police in 2010.
On Jan. 4, Sammamish discontinued a decades-long partnership with firm Kenyon Disend and opted for in-house counsel for the first time in city history. However, court filings indicate that the city has chosen representation by general litigators Jesse Taylor and Jessica Goldman of the Summit Law Group, instead of City Attorney Lisa Marshall.
The application of the First Amendment to digital platforms is a relatively new area of law. When asked about precedent for this lawsuit, Shaeffer cited the most recent and well-known example of such a dispute, Knight Institute v. Trump, in which President Donald Trump and aides were sued for blocking seven followers on Twitter, in violation of the First Amendment’s freedom to petition. When asked how the case affects Kimsey v. Sammamish, Shaeffer explained that Trump’s defense was that he was exercising the right of a private citizen, but the court found that this defense did not hold up since he was conducting public business on his Twitter page.
Plaintiffs in both suits claim that the public comments on the city’s official Facebook page constitutes a public forum, which would qualify the comments in question as protected speech under the First Amendment.
“There are some legitimate reasons to remove comments,” said Shaeffer. “But disagreeing with the city government and commenting on matters of public concern is at the core of the First Amendment and should not be censored.”
For now, though, it is a waiting game.
“I look forward to hearing from the city in terms of whether they acknowledge any of the allegations that we’ve made,” said Aimes, who is representing Langsdorf. “That’ll be the next step.”