Supreme Court won’t hear environmentalist’s appeal of $4.4 million judgment for speaking out

U.S. Supreme Court, Dec. 2, 2019. Credit: Robin Bravender

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a Florida case involving the rights of citizens to publicly criticize developers.

The decision upholds a $4.4-million judgment against environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla in Martin County. Hurchalla, an 80-year old former Martin County commissioner, is the sister of the late U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

She spent seven years fighting the lawsuit brought against her by Lake Point Restoration, a rock mining company. Hurchalla had criticized the project to the Martin County Commission and the developer filed suit.

Lake Point accused Hurchalla of making false statements that influenced county officials and damaged the proposed development. The original lawsuit also named county officials but they entered into a settlement agreement with the developer, leaving Hurchalla alone to defend the lawsuit.

“We are at the end of the road in the Lake Point case,’’ Hurchalla said after hearing of the decision. “But the First Amendment is not dead, it’s just dangling. I’m not at all sorry that I have spent the last seven years fighting for it.’’

Meanwhile, Hurchalla went out kayaking after getting the news Monday morning. Sheriffs’ deputies had seized the craft after the rock mining company obtained a court order demanding payment of the judgement. The kayak and a 2004 Toyota previously owned by Reno, which also was seized, were later returned.

First Amendment advocates were more critical, saying the court missed a chance to support the right of citizens to comment on public issues.

Barbara Petersen, founding director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, described the decision as “awful news.’’

“It means that anyone who expresses concerns or dares to challenge government action runs the real risk of getting dragged into court by whoever disagrees with the concerns expressed,’’ Petersen said. “It foreshadows a serious erosion of our First Amendment and will stifle civic engagement.’’

Widely known First Amendment lawyer Talbot “Sandy’’ D’Alemberte handled earlier arguments during an appeal of the case in Florida courts, but died last year while the case was pending.

D’Alemberte’s wife and law partner, Patsy Palmer, said the court “missed a critical opportunity to support the First Amendment right of citizens to comment on public issues.’’

Palmer said Hurchalla’s “long and courageous battle’’ was not just for herself or the environment, but for the Constitution.

In an email, Hurchalla said she had hoped that the court, “above all others would affirm the importance of the First Amendment right to peacefully tell government what to do. Without it, there is no ‘We the people.’ If you can’t sort out what’s right by public discussion, the alternatives are dictatorships or violence.”