Free speech rights: Lawyers ask U.S. Supreme Court to overturn judgment in environmentalist Hurchalla case

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

Lawyers for Martin County environmental activist Maggy Hurchalla have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a $4.4-million judgment in a South Florida lawsuit.

Hurchalla, the sister of former Miami Dade State Attorney and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno contends the judgement endangers the rights of the public to raise questions about environmental issues.

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

Hurchalla raised questions about a rock mining company seeking permits from the Martin County Commission and suggested it would seriously damage the environment.

She was sued by the owners of the mining company, Lake Point Development, after Martin County Commissioners made decisions adverse to the developer.  The award for damages has been upheld by the 4th District Court of Appeal and left standing when the Florida Supreme Court refused to consider her appeal in April.

Now, attorneys Virginia P. Sherlock and Howard K. Heims of Stuart; Enrique D. Arana and Rachel Oostendorp of Miami and Jamie Gorelick of Washington, D.C. have asked the nation’s highest court to review the verdict and uphold the free speech rights of citizens to speak out against actions being taken by public officials.

Hurchalla’s remarks questioned whether a preliminary study of the proposed project had been done.  The developer accused Hurchalla of acting with “actual malice’’ against them and sued.

Hurchalla, a former Martin County Commissioner,  said the developer promised to obtain an Everglades environmental study that was never performed. She viewed a preliminary study as too limited and not subject to the comprehensive review given to other South Florida projects.

The errors committed by lower courts “pose a grave risk to the fundamental protections guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the petition charges.

The trial judge in an ex-parte hearing, asked Hurchalla to sign a letter of apology, which he drafted, and promise to refrain from criticizing the project in the future.

She refused and attempted to recuse the judge, but he denied her request and refused to place the letter in the official record.  The trial ended with a multi million dollar verdict against her.

It sends a clear message “to any deep pocketed private actors who might be harmed by some governmental action: they can now wield tort litigation as a cudgel to intimidate and silence any critic or opponent,’’ they allege.

No damages should have been awarded because there was no proof the county’s decisions against the developer were related to her emails objecting to the project, the appeal contends.

Exposing citizens to the potential of massive liability judgements would suppress public activity and diminish the quality of public policy and the health of our Democratic self government,  the lawyers allege.

The verdict against Hurchalla far exceeded her net worth. In an attempt to collect the judgement, the Lake Point mining company had the sheriff seize two kayaks and a 2004 Toyota Camry, which the developer later returned.

Lucy Morgan
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.