IJ went back to court this week to defend the property rights activists sued for libel by a local official and developer in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Arlington, Va.—It is time to throw out the frivolous lawsuit meant to silence the free speech of those who oppose eminent domain abuse. That is the message members of the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition—a grassroots group formed to fight the abuse of eminent domain in their community—will deliver at 8 a.m. on Thursday, March 5, 2009, through their attorneys from the Institute for Justice. A hearing on the coalition’s motion to dismiss the case will be held at the Circuit Court for the 18th Judicial District, 105 Public Square, Sumner County Courthouse in Gallatin, Tenn., in the second-floor courtroom before the Honorable C.L. “Buck” Rogers.
On May 3, 2008, the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition ran an ad in the local newspaper, The Leaf-Chronicle, criticizing Clarksville’s proposed redevelopment plan and its backers, including Richard Swift and Wayne Wilkinson, who are developers in Clarksville, Tenn. Swift is not only a developer, but also a member of the Clarksville City Council—an elected official with the ability to vote for eminent domain for private development. Wilkinson is a member of Clarksville’s Downtown District Partnership.
The ad, noting that both Swift and Wilkinson are developers, said, “This Redevelopment Plan is of the developers, by the developers, and for the developers.” Six days after the ad appeared, Swift and Wilkinson—who are using the power of government to benefit developers—sued the group and its members for defamation and demanded $500,000.
“This tactic—where developers and public officials who abuse eminent domain sue property owners and their advocates to try to silence them—is a disturbing national trend,” said Bert Gall, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represents property owners to defend both their free speech and property rights. “Similar cases are now unfolding in Texas, Missouri and Washington.”
Gall said, “Swift and Wilkinson are thin-skinned bullies trying to silence and intimidate their critics with frivolous litigation. We all have a First Amendment right to speak out against government abuse without getting sued for our speech by the very people whose actions we are protesting. If politicians and public figures could sue anyone who criticized them, everyone in America would need a lawyer. But under the First Amendment, you shouldn’t need a lawyer to speak out about politics.”
The Institute for Justice recently graded Tennessee’s eminent domain reforms as a “D-minus,” stating that much more needs to happen to protect Tennesseans from eminent domain abuse. Senator Paul Stanley and Representative Curry Todd have introduced a reform bill that would move Tennessee up into A territory because it better defines “public use” and “blight”—two key reforms that are needed if property is to be safe from eminent domain for private gain.