Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th Ward) violated the First Amendment by blocking six critics from his official Facebook page in 2021, and now faces a trial to determine whether he should pay those critics damages, a federal judge ruled Monday.
“The record is clear that Gardiner engaged in both content-based and speaker-based restrictions on his Facebook page, according to the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman. “He deleted and hid comments from disfavored constituents voicing opposing political beliefs and even went as far as to block some of those constituents. The Court thus finds Gardiner in violation of the First Amendment.”
Johnson Coleman’s ruling upholds a 2019 advisory opinion issued by the Chicago Board of Ethics that warned members of the City Council who use social media to communicate with constituents and city residents that they should not block people from following their accounts or delete comments critical of them or their positions.
In response to a request for comment from WTTW News via text message, Gardiner initially responded with a phone call before saying he had called back by mistake “after hitting the wrong button.” He hung up without comment.
Johnson Coleman ruled that the evidence presented by the six residents of the Far Northwest Side ward who were blocked by Gardiner – James Suh, Steve Held, Pete Czosnyka, Peter Barash, Adam Vavrick and Dominick Maino – was so overwhelming that a trial on the merits of their claim was not necessary.
All six plaintiffs criticized Gardiner on his Facebook page and were blocked by Gardiner because of the content of their political speech, in violation of the First Amendment, according to the ruling.
In addition, Johnson Coleman dismissed Gardiner’s argument that he had the power to moderate his Facebook page as he saw fit by deleting comments he considered “harassing,” “threatening,” “doxing” or “inciting” and by blocking users after receiving complaints.
The judge also dismissed Gardiner’s assertion that his conduct was protected by qualified immunity, a legal principle that grants government officials performing discretionary functions immunity from lawsuits for damages.
Johnson Coleman determined that Gardiner had been put on notice that he was not permitted to block critics from his Facebook page, establishing that he knew he was violating their constitutional rights.
The judge’s 12-page ruling was highly critical of Gardiner, who has been under fire for years, but nevertheless won reelection earlier this year, defeating five challengers, including Suh.
Gardiner has also been accused of leaking improperly obtained court records that showed Suh had been charged with unlawful use of a weapon in 2008. Suh has helped organize a protest of Gardiner for blocking the approval of a proposed development near Six Corners in Portage Park.
The Cook County Circuit Court Clerk requested that the office’s watchdog probe how Gardiner got those records.
In July, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg determined that Gardiner retaliated against Czosnyka in 2019 by directing a city employee to issue “unfounded citations” that could have forced the Jefferson Park man to pay more than $600 in fines.
The Chicago Board of Ethics could fine Gardiner in October for violating the city’s ethics ordinance in connection with that finding by the inspector general.
Czosnyka told WTTW News he hoped the ruling would deter other elected officials from blocking their critics on social media.
“I'm really happy the First Amendment won out here,” said Czosnyka, adding that he and the other plaintiffs will ask the judge to order Gardiner to pay the “not insignificant” attorney’s fees.
Gardiner faces a number of other investigations.
WTTW News reported in September 2021 that federal agents are probing whether Gardiner took bribes and demanded payments before taking official actions. He has not been charged.
In January, the Board of Ethics asked the inspector general to probe allegations Gardiner harassed a group of people collecting petition signatures for one of his opponents in November.
Gardiner apologized in September 2021 for sending profane and misogynistic texts to a former aide about Ald. Tom Tunney (44th Ward) and two women who work at City Hall.
In April 2022, Charles Sikanich, hired by Gardiner to oversee the 45th Ward, was charged with trying to sell an illegal machine gun while on the clock.
Sikanich’s mother works in the circuit court clerk’s office and would have easy access to Suh’s criminal records.
Sikanich and Gardiner are also being sued in federal court by a man who alleges that the alderperson had him harassed, intimidated and falsely arrested after he’d picked up a cellphone that Sikanich left at a 7-Eleven.