Website terms of use lead to First Amendment lawsuit against San Diego health care district

Original Article Link: Website terms of use lead to First Amendment lawsuit against San Diego health care district | Courthouse News Service

A health district board member says her free speech rights were violated when she was reprimanded for criticizing a website’s terms of use.

While many may blindly accept websites’ terms of use without even reading them, an elected member of the Palomar Health District’s Board of Directors bristled at the prospect of having to agree to a wide ranging set of rules in order to see the district’s web page.

But after Laurie Edwards-Tate criticized the terms of use agreement in an interview with local media, the health district reprimanded her. Now, she’s suing the San Diego County-based health district, claiming it violated her First Amendment rights.

In August 2023, the health district’s administration added terms of use to their site. If users don’t agree to the terms, they can’t access any part of the site, including public records like meeting minutes and agendas for board meetings.

If users opt in, they agree to let Palomar Health collect their personal information, to resolve any disputes through arbitration, and to waive their right to bring a class action lawsuit against Palomar, among other things.

A reporter for Voice of San Diego, a local nonprofit news outlet, wrote a story about the new user agreement. For a follow-up story, the reporter spoke to Edwards-Tate, who relayed her concerns that it would be a barrier for people to access the Palomar Health District’s website, and that, to her knowledge, the decision to put the agreement on the site was never brought up in a regular board meeting.

The Voice of San Diego story also pointed out the possibility that the terms of use agreement could violate the Brown Act, a state law that governs public access and participation in public meetings, since Palomar is a public health care district, and the new terms of use may impose a restriction to access public records on the site.

Shortly after the article was published, Edwards-Tate received an email from an attorney representing the chief executive office of Palomar informing her that her comments were being investigated for possible violations of the health district’s duty of loyalty and their media policy, which prevents employees from giving their personal opinions to the news outlets without permission from the marketing department. The email also said her comments could be considered under the district’s policy as being false or misleading.

Edwards-Tate claims in her lawsuit that the district’s policies amount to unconstitutional prior restraint on speech and violate the California Constitution’s freedom of speech clause.

“I think it all boils down to the right of a public official to speak to their constituents,” Edwards-Tate told Courthouse News. “The constituents have the right to hear from their public official.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of California in San Diego on Wednesday.

Edwards-Tate said she was aware the board had plans to upgrade their website, but there was never any discussion, or vote, on the terms of use agreement or how it would affect constituents.

“People count on us, count on me, to represent them. When it comes to health care, this is a very serious issue,” she said, adding that she is also concerned about how it affects her constituents’ rights to access public record, or make public comments to be considered at board meetings.

She said she gave the Voice of San Diego a “very benign statement,” that didn’t malign the health district itself.

“The district’s position here flies in the face of the First Amendment. They are trying to sanction an elected official for telling the people she represents about a policy she disagrees with,” wrote Karin Sweigart, one of Edward-Tate’s attorneys, in a press release. “It is hard to think of a more blatant infringement on First Amendment speech than the government telling a legislator they cannot tell their constituents they think a government policy is a bad one.”

Palomar Health District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Original Article Link: Website terms of use lead to First Amendment lawsuit against San Diego health care district | Courthouse News Service

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