Environmentalist Hurchalla: ‘I’m okay, the First Amendment is not’

Volunteers unfurl a giant banner printed with the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

A unanimous Florida Supreme Court has refused to review a $4.4-million verdict against environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla for urging the Martin County Commission to back out of a deal with Lake Point Restoration, a rock mining company.

Hurchalla, the feisty sister of former U.S. Attorney Janet Reno, has waged a lengthy legal battle, lost some of her possessions and made the case a celebrated cause for environmental activists who contend the decision against her will have a long term impact on the ability of Floridians to oppose actions taken by governmental agencies.

“I’m okay, the First Amendment is not,’’ Hurchalla said Tuesday after hearing of the court decision.

maggy at the podium
Maggy Hurchalla protesting water pollution at the Capitol. Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch photo

She has vowed to take the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary and recently created www.SLAPPMaggy.com, a web site devoted to the details of the case which originated in Martin County and was upheld by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach last year.

Initially the developer sued Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District but both settled out of court, leaving Hurchalla to battle it out alone. (SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.)

It was the last case argued by famed First Amendment lawyer Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte before he died in May 2019.  He argued that the multi-million- dollar verdict was an extreme penalty against free speech and the right to petition government.

Hurchalla, a 79-year-old retiree, was at home fighting a fever Tuesday, but said she is not giving up.

“I’m the last one standing,’’ Hurchalla wrote recently in an online treatise that outlined the five-year legal fight.

She contends that the lawsuit and verdict amounts to “legal bullying’’ that is designed to make sure no one can oppose public issues.

Attorneys for Lake Point contend Hurchalla made false statements about the development group, an allegation she denies.  A former Martin County Commissioner, Hurchalla contends that the public discussion over the company was a political duty that is a fundamental privilege of Americans.

“Imagine what politics would be like if citizens could not criticize a government contract without being sued for millions of dollars.  If you found your officials were giving away the store with your tax dollars, you couldn’t mention it.’’

Her fight has drawn support from the First Amendment Foundation as well as a dozen environmental and First Amendment groups.

“This is saying “We don’t want to know what you think, don’t express an opinion and don’t dare ask for a public record, it’s stunning,’’ noted Barbara Petersen, former president of the Foundation.

Lawyers for Lake Point argued that Hurchalla was a “puppeteer’’ who influenced the actions of the county commission with “deliberate” misrepresentations that cost the company millions of dollars.

After losing the initial lawsuit, the company seized two old kayaks and a 2004 Toyota Camry that had once belonged to her late sister.  Authorities later returned the vehicle and the kayaks saying the rock mining company owner did not want them.

“All I have to do is die a pauper,’’ she said in a telephone interview from her home near Stuart Tuesday. “The only problem is the First Amendment.’’

She said she is disappointed, but not depressed, destroyed or giving up.  She plans to talk to her lawyers and decide what to do next.

Hurchalla has established a SLAPP-Back Fund” to raise money for attorneys fees and further appeals.

Meanwhile she has an appointment Wednesday to take a coronavirus test to make sure the fever and headache she is experiencing is not the virus.

“It would be too ludriculously dramatic to die of the coronavirus,’’ she said.