Reposted from PTP members, Civil Liberties Defense Center.
Eugene, OR—On Saturday, October 10th, CLDC and the Protect the Protest task force filed an amicus brief in support of Maggie Hurchalla, a Florida community elder and leader who dared to ask her elected officials to reject a mining company’s proposal that she believed could harm the environment.
This case shows just how far big corporations will go to silence their opposition. Two years ago, Ms. Hurchalla, a 79-year-old private citizen and retired Martin County, Florida county commissioner, was hit with over $4 million in damages for sending a single email to her public officials expressing her reservations about Lake Point Restoration’s proposed limestone mining project and urging them to reject the mining company’s permit application. Lake Point Restoration argued, and the lower court affirmed, that her email substantially harmed its financial interests after the County rejected its permit.
“The right to petition the government is a foundational principle of free speech; when citizens ask the government to solve a problem, such speech should, and must, be immune from private liability. Maggie’s case is a horrible example of why this immunity is so crucial, particularly when one is speaking out against a wealthy corporation,” said Lauren Regan, the Director and lead attorney for the CLDC, which also coordinates the legal team for the Protect the Protest task force made up of over 30 organizations from around the country. “For that right to mean anything, people must be free from fear of bad-faith corporate attempts to seek tort liability on the basis of speech that should be protected. If the precedent of the Florida court is allowed to stand, it will substantially deter individuals from speaking out on politically fraught issues,” said CLDC Staff Attorney Rebecca Chapman.
Maggie’s attorneys are asking the United States Supreme Court to review this extremely disturbing decision that will likely scare some people away from participating in their government. CLDC’s amicus brief shows how, unless the case is reversed, it could set a very alarming precedent for our First Amendment right to participate in public proceedings. Co-signed by a very diverse group of interested parties, from the Protect the Protest task force and the Institute for Justice to the Cato Institute, the brief argues that the decision should be overturned due not only to its factual and legal errors but also because of the extreme chilling effect it will have for citizen engagement with government officials.
“We stand in solidarity with heroes like Maggie Hurchalla who fight to protect their communities from harm. With this suit, CLDC and the Protect the Protest task force seek to affirm the right of people to exercise their First Amendment rights to freely petition the government,” said attorney Lauren Regan of the CLDC and PTP.
Lake Point Restoration’s suit was a classic SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation – designed to retaliated against Maggie for expressing critical opinions. Although Lake Point failed to prove that there was anything libelous, slanderous, otherwise defamatory, or even factually untrue about the statement in question, the Fourth District Court of Appeals of Florida awarded the company $4.4 million in damages. The Florida State Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of this legal and ethical travesty.
If this Florida Court decision is allowed to remain a state precedent, it will chill the ability of the general public across the nation to participate in government proceedings on public issues that they care about. We’re already seeing an alarming trend of corporations using SLAPPs to silence citizen opposition from exercising their first amendment rights; in 2019 CLDC and Protect the Protest defended citizens of Weed, California from a nearly identical lawsuit. Nine residents of Weed, all of whom were over the age of 70, were SLAPPed by Roseburg Forest Products because of their efforts challenging the company’s attempts to control the local water source. We simply cannot stand by and allow bad corporate actors to abuse our laws in silence.
CLDC and the Protect the Protest coalition stand with Maggie Hurchalla in declaring that we the public have a right to petition our elected leaders to protect us from harm. The protections of the First Amendment do not require that we be “right” when we petition the government (although here, Ms. Hurchalla was right.) Citizens should be free to petition their government in the public political arena even if they are wrong, or mistaken, in good-faith. It is firmly established that the First Amendment protects good-faith speech, even speech that reflects a “misconception” to eliminate the risk of undue self-censorship and to facilitate the spread of truth in all its forms. In the context of statements made in the public arena on matters of public interest, the law and courts must protect the public and individual advocates from the transformation of that petitioning into a private litigation liability. Maggie was acting in good faith to protect her community and environment, and that is protected speech under the constitution.
You can view the full brief HERE.
Florida environmental organizations submitted a second Amicus brief emphasizing that the precedent set by the lower court would make it impossible for anyone to safely argue with government officials over controversial scientific issues.
The groups include: Bullsugar.org, Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County, Florida Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Everglades, Marine Resources Council of East Florida, Martin County Conservation Alliance, Small World Adventures, LLC, the Pegasus Foundation and Waterkeepers, Florida
Click here to read the second Amicus brief.