Miami Beach Mayor's Lawyers Say Censorship Suit Is "Embarrassing" Him

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine takes a photo with a selfie stick.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine takes a photo with a selfie stick. City of MIami Beach
click to enlarge Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine takes a photo with a selfie stick. - CITY OF MIAMI BEACH
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine takes a photo with a selfie stick.
City of MIami Beach
Poor, poor Philip Levine. The Miami Beach mayor has long been suspected of running a massive social-media-blocking campaign — over the past few years, he's cut off critics, local activists, and even the main Miami New Times twitter account from reading his tweets. Multiple courts have ruled that politicians are not allowed to block people from viewing their social media accounts because those pages disseminate vital public information.

So Levine is getting sued. And his lawyers tried to argue in court yesterday that the mayor shouldn't have to sit for a deposition because answering basic questions under oath would apparently humiliate him.

"The Notice of Taking Video Deposition for the Corporate Representative clearly illustrates that this litigation is being utilized for the purpose of annoying and embarrassing the City," Miami Beach City Attorney Raul Aguila argued in a court filing yesterday.

The activist suing Levine, Grant Stern, has argued for months that the mayor's alleged habit of blocking people who disagree with him online violates the First Amendment. Sterns says he wants Levine to sit for a deposition to answer basic facts about who runs his social media accounts, how they're used, and whether any taxpayer money goes toward maintaining the accounts.

In a move that seems to have deeply upset the city, Stern launched a web page to crowdsource deposition questions for the mayor from citizens and other people who have been blocked. Stern, who does have a flair for drama, maintains he needed to do this because he hasn't been able to view any of Levine's personal accounts for more than a year and isn't able to properly conduct legal research and take note of what Levine has been posting. (Stern provided the mayor and the city with a list of possible deposition topics August 9.)

The city, though, argues the lawsuit is a publicity stunt. Its attorneys are asking a county circuit judge to issue an order preventing Levine from having to speak under oath and asking the court to sanction Stern for his actions.

Aguila, the city attorney, wrote yesterday that Stern's blog post and list of deposition topics "clearly show the intent of the video depositions in this litigation is to annoy Mayor Levine and the City."

That kind of response might only feed the notion that Levine is an out-of-touch rich dude obsessed with his own image. This term is his last as mayor, and he's spent 2017 traveling the state to decide whether to run for governor. Levine is a Democrat and longtime friend of the Clinton family, but earlier this year, he said he appreciated aspects of the Republican platform, called himself a "radical centrist," and claimed he would run as an independent candidate for governor. At a speech in Pinellas County last Friday, Levine walked that ill-advised statement back and assured local Democrats he's one of them.

Such is the Tao of Levine: He has spent his mayoral career yelling at critics and putting his foot in his mouth, including jokingly threatening to invade Cuba. (He has been uncharacteristically well behaved since the Cuba flap and, to his credit, seems to genuinely care about sea-level rise.)

In Levine world, getting sued for allegedly censoring your constituents apparently rates as an "annoyance."
Levine could end Stern's suit by handing over the list of people he blocks online. Stern filed a public-records request for that information months ago for the mayor's three Facebook accounts (one private, one for his campaigns, and one official mayoral page). He's also asking for info about any pages that handle official mayoral business.

Stern has filed similar records requests with other Miami-area officials: In June, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle handed over her own block list, which revealed that the county's top prosecutor was blocking people for criticizing her conduct in office. After Stern, and later New Times, published information about her social media censorship, her office unblocked everybody. (California First Amendment activist Angela Greben also obtained ex-state Sen. Frank Artiles' lengthy Facebook block list earlier this year.)

Politicians' social media use has rapidly turned into one of the most pressing issues in First Amendment law: Free-speech advocates say it's important to force courts to recognize political Facebook and Twitter accounts as public records because elected officials use said pages to disseminate vital public information. In 2014, a Hawaii federal court ruled that Honolulu Police couldn't delete comments from its Facebook page, and this year, a federal court in Virginia ruled that politicians are not allowed to block people from viewing their pages. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is also suing Donald Trump to force him to unblock what is likely a massive list of censored accounts on Twitter.

But Levine refuses to give his block list to Stern, a move made doubly absurd by the fact that the mayor voluntarily gave that same list to Greben in 2015. So Stern claims he's had no other recourse but to sue.

"Mayor Levine must have done something even worse than we know about with his social media accounts since he’s so scared to show up to a deposition about information which he is posting publicly," Stern said via phone today.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.