Ald. James M. Gardiner (45th) speaks during a City Council meeting on July 19, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

JEFFERSON PARK — Six constituents who sued Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) for blocking them or deleting their critical comments of him on his Facebook page scored a key win in their ongoing legal battle this week.

The residents’ lawsuit, filed in 2021, alleged Gardiner violated the First Amendment by silencing his critics, even though he was aware of the laws barring him from doing so.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman agreed with the residents in a ruling issued Monday.

The Far Northwest Side alderman now faces a trial to determine if he will pay the critics for the violation, Johnson Coleman wrote in her decision. Gardiner, who has since unblocked all of the constituents, is also not allowed to block any future constituents from his page, the judge wrote.

“Given the robust and evolving consensus in the caselaw and the specific guidance from the Chicago Board of Ethics that Gardiner’s conduct was violating plaintiffs’ rights, it is clear that a reasonable Alderman in his position knew or should have known that deleting comments and blocking users on his official Alderman Facebook Page ran afoul of the First Amendment,” Coleman wrote.

Adele Nicholas, one of the attorneys representing the constituents, said she was pleased with the decision and that it can uphold a standard for other elected officials. Her clients are now entitled to damages for violations of their First Amendment rights, which will be determined by a jury, Nicholas said.

“Social media are undoubtedly the most important and effective way for citizens to communicate with their elected representatives, and to engage with their neighbors on issues that are important to them, so I’m very glad that the district court recognized that the First Amendment applies in full force to these types of forums,” Nicholas said. “Public officials can’t pick and choose who they hear from.”

Gardiner did not return requests for comment.

WTTW’s Heather Cherone was first to report on the ruling.

Ald. James M. Gardiner (45th) sits with Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) at a City Council meeting on May 25, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The judge’s decision upholds a 2019 advisory opinion issued by the Chicago Board of Ethics that warned City Council members who use social media to communicate with constituents and city residents should not block people from following their accounts.

Gardiner sought qualified immunity in the lawsuit, which could grant government officials performing discretionary functions exemption from lawsuits for damages. Johnson Coleman denied that request, according to the ruling.

Based on the evidence provided in blocking critics he didn’t agree with and his depositions from the case, “the record makes it clear that Gardiner is not deserving of good faith protection,” Coleman wrote.

Gardiner must develop a content moderation policy that “comports with the First Amendment’s requirements,” and only then can he commence moderation of his page in accordance with that policy, which he has not created, the judge added added.

Gardiner’s first aldermanic term was rife with controversy, though he was reelected earlier this year. Most recently, the city’s watchdog found he directed city employees to issue “unfounded citations” to one of his critics in 2019, also a plaintiff in the social media lawsuit.

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, WTTW reported.

Those issues followed him into his second term. The FBI is investigating Gardiner over bribery and pay-to-play allegations, and three lawsuits have been filed against him. He’s also been accused of retaliating against other critics, including some who were involved in the First Amendment lawsuit.

Earlier this month, Gardiner decided not to run for 45th Ward committeeperson for the Cook County Democratic Party. In 2021, the political party stripped of all of his committee posts and formally reprimanded him after he used misogynistic and sexist language in leaked text messages and faced misconduct allegations.