PACIFIC GROVE — The city of Pacific Grove has responded to a federal lawsuit filed by a former police officer earlier this year claiming he was wrongly fired for exercising his free speech rights.
In January 2021, the former officer — Michael Gonzalez — was fired after personal posts containing offensive remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement online came to light in 2020. That same year, controversy also embroidered Gonzalez as he apparently placed stickers on his private vehicle with anti-LGBTQ language, as well as support for a right-wing militia group that he parked on city property.
The lawsuit — filed on Feb. 22 in US District Court Northern District in San Jose — maintains Gonzalez was fired “for expressing himself as a citizen, in political discussions on matters of public concern, on his own free time, while off duty, on his own personal social media account, “The 30-page complaint reads.
Though the city admits in a May 27 letter that Gonzalez was terminated from his job as a police officer, to some degree, because of his activity online, the 18-page document response later denies that his termination was “based solely on his social media posts.”
The posts in question refer to Gonzalez’s activity on a contentious social media platform known as Parler, which brands itself as a champion of unmoderated free speech but came under fire last year for failing to police violent content related to the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. On Nov. 28, 2020, Gonzalez took to Parler, where he posted “F*** Black Lives Matter” and “Free Kyle Rittenhouse.” The latter post refers to the teenager who, in 2020, fatally shot one unarmed man with an AR-15 style assault rifle, killed a second person and wounded another in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests over a Black man who was shot by a white police officer in that city.
The city denies terminating Gonzalez on the basis of his “Free Kyle Rittenhouse” post, only admitting that he was fired, in part, because his post concerning the Black Lives Matter movement violated the Pacific Grove Police Department’s code of conduct.
Gonzalez’s complaint argues otherwise.
“This case is not about anything. Gonzalez did as a cop,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed by Los Angeles attorney Caleb Mason. “There was never any allegation of suggestion that he did anything improper on the job.”
The city refutes the claim that Gonzalez’s activity online did not, definitively, have any impact on police functions or services. Further, the city denies that Gonzalez had a right to post “F*** Black Lives Matter” or “Free Kyle Rittenhouse” to begin with.
Beyond addressing Gonzalez’s Parler posts, the city’s response — filed by Pacific Grove’s attorneys, Michael Christian and Michael Hsueh of the Sacramento law firm Jackson Lewis — denies claims that Gonzalez was fired because “one city council member did not like his political view.” The allegation is in regard to Jenny McAdams, who initially drew city attention to the stickers on Gonzalez’s pickup truck in the spring of 2020. At the time, McAdams called Pacific Grove Police Chief Cathy Mandalone, asking who owned the truck, which was parked on city property, and asked what Mandalone “was going to do about it?” according to Gonzalez’s complaint and confirmed by the city’s response.
The decals included one that read “Liberty, Guns, Beer, Trump,” which has the initials of LGBT. Another boasted the name of an organization called the “Three Percenters” that human rights groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, have named as an anti-government militia group. Several members of the Three Percenters movement were charged with conspiracy for having a hand in plotting the Jan. 6 Capitol assault.
Gonzalez was placed on leave and investigated but ultimately exonerated when the investigation did not sustain violations of police department policy. Pacific Grove City Manager Ben Harvey notified Pacific Grove staff that Gonzalez would be returning to work in September 2020. In response, McAdams wrote to Mandalone and city staff to express her disappointment, noting that “as a member of the LGBTQ community, I remain offended by the police officer’s decals and will not forget what I felt (sad, scared, angry, disgust).”
Later, in November 2020, it was McAdams that emailed Mandalone regarding Gonzalez’s posts on Parler, the city’s response said. McAdams said she received screenshots of the posts from a concerned resident.
Citing this timeline, the complaint against the city — in which both Mandalone and Harvey are listed as plaintiffs — contends “McAdams was not satisfied,” adding that she “wanted whoever dared put those stickers on that vehicle to be identified, punished, and fired .”
According to the city’s response, this section of the complaint “lacks sufficient information or belief to admit or deny the allegations,” and on that basis refutes the claims. Similar language is used for several allegations made against McAdams in the February complaint.