“Can you be sued for trying to save the world?”Maggy Hurchalla
Two years ago, a jury decided Maggy Hurchalla, 79 years old, should pay $4.4 million to Lake Point Restoration, a company running limestone mining operations in Martin County, Florida.
A lifelong Florida resident, Ms. Hurchalla came from a family of journalists. Her sister was Janet Reno, the first female attorney general of the United States. Maggy Hurchalla herself was also civically engaged in her home state as an avid environmentalist and as Martin County’s first female county commissioner until 1994.
The story is stranger than fiction: In the mid 2000s, she learned that Lake Point was planning on developing a rock mining site in Martin County. Ms. Hurchalla wanted to protect her home and community. So she went to work. She wrote emails to county commissioners expressing her environmental concerns about the project. Eventually the deal fell apart. That’s when the company took revenge.
Lake Point sued Ms. Hurchalla for interfering with the contract. Ms. Hurchalla says she was exercising her First Amendment rights. In 2018 a jury decided in favor of the company. So, she appealed, all the way to Florida’s Supreme Court.
This is a classic case of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). SLAPPs are a tactic used by powerful interests in which the courts are used for retaliation, rather than for true justice (here’s a handy guide so you can spot a SLAPP suit).
SLAPPs masquerade as legitimate lawsuits, alleging claims such as “defamation” or “interference with contract.” In most cases, courts will eventually dismiss SLAPPs after finding that the defendant’s actions are not wrongful because they were protected by the First Amendment. But a SLAPP does not need to be successful in court to have its intended effect. The goal of a SLAPP is to retaliate against critics. Even a meritless lawsuit can drag on for years, draining a defendant’s resources through costly and time-consuming litigation. The lawsuit can also take a toll on the defendant’s reputation and morale. In many cases, SLAPP bullies hope that the lawsuit will end in a binding settlement that muzzles the critic’s future rights to free speech.
Like in Maggy Hurchalla’s case, the case has been dragged on for years. And it’s not looking good.
Earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear Ms. Hurchalla’s appeal. There’s only one more place to go, the US Supreme Court.
You might think that Ms. Hurchalla would feel defeated. But she is holding her head up, and is asking you to do the same.
In a recent article in TC Palm she said: “The main message is I am not depressed, I am not destroyed, and I am not giving up,” Hurchalla said. “And people should not be worrying about me, they should be worrying about the First Amendment.”
“How do you keep from being sued? Honestly you can’t. Vengeful billionaires and corporations with deep pockets will continue to use SLAPP suits for as long as the strategy works.”Maggy Hurchalla
Here are 21 things you can do if you’re getting SLAPPed, by Maggy Hurchalla
[Note: this is not legal advice, please consult with your lawyer. Here is additional information on how to avoid publication liability]
Before the state Supreme Court decision, Maggy Hurchalla shared a video with us, giving advice to people facing similar SLAPP suits
“Can you be sued for trying to save the world? Yes. Should you curl up under the bed and give up on trying to save the world? No!”Maggy Hurchalla
1) Make your complaint to government officials, the right to petition your government under the First Amendment is stronger than the right of free press or the right of free speech!
2) Simply adding “in my opinion” will not save you (according to the Florida Court of Appeals – it’s not privileged information under the First Amendment if you have mixed-in facts and haven’t laid down foundation for facts – she notes, “imagine trying to lay down an adequate factual basis when you are at a public meeting with 3 minutes to speak”)
3) Hyperbole can save you if you are angry at the other side, say something absolutely outlandish and you’ll be OK ( and it can’t be thought of as conveying an actual fact.)
4) You are not legally required to preserve all communications you ever make with public officials, but once litigation has been threatened or filed, you must save everything.
5) But… that will not necessarily protect you.
6) Be aware that your email may be hacked and your phone tapped. SLAPPers are not nice people and they have very deep pockets.
7) It’s probably not wise to be irreverent, I think that’s sad. I like to take my causes seriously but I don’t like to take myself too seriously, and we should have fun saving the world!
8) Always try to be accurate, do your homework, keep a record and back up those records!
9) If you get a threatening letter from the opposition attorney that seems to be absolutely ridiculous, don’t throw it away, answer it in detail. It might not deflect the SLAPPer, but it may be very useful if you get to trial.
10) Get together with your allies, make sure everyone involved knows the issues you are petitioning about.
12) Work with state and national organizations to get back up research.
13) Lobby your legislature for strong Anti-SLAPP laws.
14) Pay attention to local judicial races, most people don’t bother! And incumbent get reelected over and over. You’re not looking for someone to “on your side” but look for someone intelligent and honest and support.
15) Help others being SLAPPed!
16) Join Protect the Protest! Send the website link to all of your friends.
17) Have parties and watch John Oliver laugh at SLAPP suits– it’s fun! You’ll also learn a lot about SLAPP suits.
18) Read “Getting Sued for Speaking Out” by George Pring and Penelope Canan. It’s well written and you’ll learn a lot.
19) If you are going to be a troublemaker in the eyes of those who are rich and powerful, it’s time to do some estate planning, your living will and will are probably out of date anyway. Make sure things are in order.
20) Before you go to trial, demand Summary Judgment on constitutional grounds and bring it up throughout the trial. Let people know what their First amendment rights are!
21) The First amendment is worth it. Democracy is worth it. Hug each other and don’t back down. Have fun storming the castle!
And remember: “This is not a story of a poor little old lady that was destroyed by a billionaire bully. I am proud of standing up for the First Amendment!”
Are you being sued for your activism?
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