The case dates back to 2019 when Joshua Ferguson and David Curlee of Friends for Fullerton’s Future blog reportedly posted confidential documents that showed the city engaging in questionable conduct.
In response, the city issued a cease-and-desist letter to have the documents taken down, and when the orders weren’t followed, the city sued to have all documents returned to city hall. It also obtained a restraining order to prevent more documents from being publicly posted, although it was overturned shortly after.
Prior to the lawsuit, the bloggers had filed dozens of public record requests under the Freedom of Information Act; the city responded to the requests by providing them with a link and password to a Dropbox account.
The writers were able to obtain access to more documents than they had asked for by using the same password on other folders within the shared Dropbox storage, the city alleged.
The city’s lawsuit said the bloggers acted illegally by accessing and downloading the documents that were believed to be confidential.
Fullerton city council agreed to settle with Ferguson, Curlee, and the blog in a three-two vote during a May 12 closed city council session. The bloggers agreed to return the documents in exchange for an undisclosed payment and the city admitting they did not steal the documents.
The city accidentally gave access to the bloggers by placing folders and files in a shared file account, believing the documents were secure, the city said in a statement following the settlement.
“However, due to errors by former employees of the city in configuring the account and lax password controls, some of the files and folders were, in fact, accessible and able to be downloaded and/or accessed without circumventing access controls,” the city said.
It continued, “Based on the City’s additional investigation and through discussions with Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Curlee, the city now agrees that documents were not stolen or taken illegally from the shared file account as the city previously believed and asserted. The city retracts any and all assertions that Friends for Fullerton’s Future, Mr. Ferguson and/or Mr. Curlee acted illegally in accessing the documents.”
As part of the settlement, Fullerton will pay $230,000 to cover the blog’s legal fees, and a $60,000 payment each to Ferguson and Curlee. In exchange, the bloggers will provide the city attorney with all the restricted files they accessed in the presence of a mediator to ensure compliance.
Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker and councilmembers Nick Dunlap and Fred Jung voted to settle the case, while councilmembers Jesus Silva and Ahmad Zahra voted against settling.
“It had already cost the city a substantial amount of money in terms of our own legal counsel fees,” Jung told The Epoch Times. “It is a First Amendment issue and not only the appellate court, but also the Supreme Court already have precedent in terms of how much they value first amendment right issues.”
Jung said he has a duty to protect citizens from frivolous lawsuits, and that it just made fiscal sense for the city in the short and long term to settle, since he did not feel the facts of the case warranted continuing it.
“[The case] was a bridge to nowhere,” Jung said. “I just needed to get us off of that, legal and fiscally draining Ferris wheel on a case that we were bound to lose.”
Friends for Fullerton’s Future blog did not respond to a request from The Epoch Times for comment.