Court Tosses Politicians’ Lawsuit Against Residents For Critical Comments
Action by township board members is a frivolous affront to free speech, circuit court rules
An Oakland County court has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a pair of Bloomfield Township officials against two township residents for items they posted on NextDoor.com, in which they criticized local elected leaders and a 2019 proposal to raise township taxes. The court called the suit frivolous and an affront to free speech rights.
In an Aug. 6 order, Circuit Judge Daniel O’Brien struck down all the claims raised by Township Supervisor Leo Savoie and Treasurer Brian Kepes only three months after the lawsuit was filed.
In doing so, he adopted arguments filed in defense of residents Val Murray and Kathleen Norton-Schock in their entirety.
“The very existence of this lawsuit is anathema to the foundational principles of free speech,” attorney Brian Wassom argued in response to the lawsuit.
Murray and Norton-Schock were sued for damages that could amount to $9 million for the “expression of opinion on political issues ... ideas that (Savoie and Kepes) dislike,” Wassom said, in arguments adopted by O’Brien.
The case against NextDoor.com, a social media platform, was not included in the dismissal, but Wassom said he expects the suit against the company to be dismissed fairly soon.
“This lawsuit is incredibly frivolous,” Wassom said, “It would be comical if it wasn’t such a dangerous assault on free speech.”
Savoie and Kepes brought the action in May, claiming that critical posts in 2019 about a proposed public safety special assessment and Murray’s 2020 commentary about the novel coronavirus contained false information and violated the site’s ban on political commentary.
The two township officials sought to have the case certified as a class action on behalf of residents who had been denied police and fire services that would have been provided by the tax hike (which was resoundingly defeated in August 2019).
“Nobody fact-checks at all,” Savoie told The Oakland Press after the lawsuit was filed. “In fact, facts are the least of their concerns.”
But Wassom said the statements and comments cited in the lawsuit are all either demonstrably true or expressions of opinion that enjoy blanket First Amendment protection.
Murray’s posts about the need to employ defensive measures against the spread of the coronavirus are virtually identical to warnings posted by the township itself and public health officials at all levels, he said. They had been cited in the officials’ lawsuit as designed to “fabricate fear and panic in the community,”
Wassom said he will ask the court to order Savoie and Kepes to pay Murray and Norton-Schock’s attorney fees as a sanction for bringing a case “lacking any arguable legal merit.”
In an interview after O’Brien’s ruling, Savoie denied that the lawsuit was aimed at suppressing speech rights. California-based NextDoor, and other social media sites, are rife with critical comments about him and other elected officials, which have not been challenged, Savoie said. But Murray’s comments crossed a line, he said.
“This has always been about ... adherence to the truth,” Savoie said. Murray’s posts contained “out and out falsehoods ... that could negatively impact our residents.”
In the Aug. 4 primary election, Savoie, supervisor since 2011, was defeated. Kepes, who also faced primary opposition, won. Murray is also running for township trustee, having advanced to the general election.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.