For immediate release: Aug. 3, 2018
Four prominent environmental organizations and the First Amendment Foundation have sought permission to file friend-of-the-court briefs in support of former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla’s appeal of a judgment entered against her for questioning the environmental benefits of a rock mining project near Lake Okeechobee. The advocacy organizations say a ruling against Hurchalla could substantially restrict their ability to speak out on issues of great public concern.
Hurchalla is embroiled in a contentious case involving the Lake Point development, which she argues would cause environmental harm. The developer went to court to stifle Hurchalla and came away with a
$4.3 million judgment against the long-time environmental advocate. In their motions for permission to file amicus briefs, the environmental organizations – Bullsugar.org, Florida Wildlife Foundation, Friends of the Everglades, and the Pegasus Foundation – say their efforts would be impeded if the standard applied in Hurchalla’s case is allowed to stand on appeal. The First Amendment Foundation, the foremost organization promoting open government, hopes to present relevant analysis on the impacts of the case.
The case involves the Lake Point project, which Hurchalla questioned in email communications with Martin County Commissioners. Hurchalla expressed her belief that the rock mining operation might not be beneficial to the environment and might, in fact, cause environmental harm. Even though her speech fell squarely within her First Amendment rights as a citizen, a jury imposed the outrageous judgment against her personally.
Hurchalla is appealing that verdict, and the advocacy organizations hope to join the case in support of her appeal. They filed motions for permission to submit amicus briefs to the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
“The protection of one’s ability to petition the government and access to open government serves fundamental constitutional values,” the First Amendment Foundation’s motion states. “To that end, the Foundation has an ongoing stake in ensuring such laws remain robust and are not abused by governmental entities, including the judiciary.”
The environmental groups argue in their motion that their advocacy efforts would be effectively nullified if they were forced to restrain themselves for fear of retaliatory litigation over their public speech.
“It would have an undeniable chilling effect on our current and future clean water advocacy work if we were to face tort liability as a result of seeking redress from our governmental officials if a good faith statement made during the course of our advocacy is subsequently deemed to have been incorrect by a court or government decision-maker,” explained Bullsugar.org, which speaks out on what it sees as threats to clean water.
The First Amendment Foundation motion was filed by attorney Paul M. Crochet of Weber, Crabb & Wein in St. Petersburg. The environmental organizations’ motion was filed by Richard Grosso, a sole practitioner in Davie. Copies of the two motions are attached.
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Virginia Sherlock, Littman, Sherlock & Heims, P.A., Telephone: (772) 287-0200