On behalf of the No Kill Advocacy Center, I’ve asked the Los Angeles County District Attorney to investigate.

It appears that the Mayor of Long Beach, California, Robert Garcia, has been hiding Facebook comments critical of his handling of Long Beach Animal Care Services—an agency with low adoption and unacceptable levels of killing—from public view*, actions that would not only be morally reprehensible, but unconstitutional and therefore, illegal.

Citizens not only have the First Amendment right to speak out against government policies with which they disagree, we have a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that we identify. And government agencies and government officials cannot censor that speech. As such, they are not permitted to remove comments critical of their policies on social media.

When animal lives are at stake, as they are when animals enter a shelter that has not fully embraced a culture of lifesaving, removing comments critical of policies that favor killing by government shelters is even more egregious given the life and death consequences. Worse, animals have no voice of their own and need others to speak for them. Deleting or hiding critical comments effectively silences them. As the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, “speech on public issues occupies the ‘highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values,’ and is entitled to special protection.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 145 (1983). Indeed, such speech lies “at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.” First Nat’l Bank of Bos. v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 776 (1978).

In spite of the vital role the right to free speech plays in our democracy, the comments are hidden from public view; comments that were on-topic, respectful in tone, and factual in content, such as highlighting other communities with similar demographics doing a far larger numbers of adoptions. By contrast, comments which heap praise upon the Mayor remain visible.

My organization, the No Kill Advocacy Center, has come to the defense of animals and those who advocate for them by writing a letter to the Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, asking for an investigation. In our letter, we highlight that hidden comments are a form of censorship that can be inflicted without a citizen’s awareness that their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech has been infringed, thereby stripping that citizen of the ability to fight back.

As I wrote to the D.A., the ‘hiding’ of posts on Facebook is more damaging to a person’s right to free speech than simply blocking them or deleting their comments. That is because the person is not always aware of the infringement of his or her free speech. When an individual’s comment has been hidden, he or she is not notified that it has been hidden. If he/she returns to the comment to look at the post, the post will appear to still be available and readable by the general public. But it is not. It is only visible to the commenter and his or her ‘Friends’ on Facebook. Thus, the commenter will not be aware that they have been silenced, that their constitutional rights were deprived, that the animals are rendered voiceless, and will not know to seek redress.

The comments occurred on posts just days prior to an election in which Mayor Garcia was a candidate. Was this an attempt to eliminate any negative impact the statements may have on that re-election? I’ve asked the D.A. to find out.

Click here for a copy of the letter (9 pages).

Click here for a copy of the letter with attachments (115 pages).

* Long Beach Animal Services “only adopted out 682 animals in 2017… [By way of comparison,] Sacramento—a city with similar demographics, population numbers and median income—adopted out more than 5,600 animals during the same year.” And things appear to be getting worse: “City records indicate that, in the first half of 2018, Long Beach Animal Care Services (LBACS) euthanized more than 19 percent of animals it took in—up nearly 5 percentage points from the same time last year—while animal adoptions during the same period decreased.”

UPDATE Aug. 11: As of this morning, the comments appear to have been unhidden. In addition to the comments which were not visible that we knew about, there were others we did not know about but which now appear visible, including comments by Jordan Riley, Charlie Trujillo Sharar, Carolyn Cunningham, and more. As I do not know these individuals, I do not know if they are aware that their constitutional rights may have been illegally deprived.

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