Chilly warning: Free speech might not be hassle free

Oakland Park residents who spoke against detox center get 'intimidation' letter

Imagine speaking at a city commission meeting on a hot-button topic and then a few weeks later getting a letter from a corporate lawyer that reads: "We intend to examine all of your records, yard signs, notes, surveillance tapes, telephone and cell phone records, letters, emails (including those on private e-mail accounts), social media, documents and writings concerning [our client]…This not only includes paper writing and records but also electronic, taped and computerized writings and images…hard drives, PDAs, laptops, text messages, calendars…and all types of electronic storage media."

This happened to Oakland Park residents who spoke against a proposed alcohol and drug treatment center in their neighborhood.

"At first, I was kind of freaking out a little bit," said Mitchell Stollberg, among the 17 residents targeted by West Palm Beach attorney James K. Green. "It's intimidation, corporate bullying."

And we wonder why so many citizens have become apathetic, not bothering to vote, show up for jury duty or speak out at local meetings?


Photos: Not at Comic-Con at TATE'S Comics

"I'm a little shocked by this," Oakland Park commissioner Jed Shank told me Friday. "We work so hard to encourage public participation in the process and my gosh – this is what happens?"

Green's "Request for Records Retention and Preservation" letters started landing in mailboxes this week, triggering alarm and concern among residents.

Green's client, Palm Partners LLC, wants to convert the shuttered North Ridge Medical Center on Dixie Highway into a private psychiatric and detox facility. The city commission rejected the 300-bed proposal last month, following a rejection by the city's planning and zoning board.

Green told me he's preparing a federal discrimination lawsuit against the city and that case law supports his effort to preserve the records of all involved in the issue. Not just public officials who sit on decision-making bodies and whose communications are subject to Florida's broad Sunshine Laws. But also citizens who speak out, including their activities and communications with other private citizens about the issue.

"I have a right to explore what was said outside of the meeting," said Green.

In other words, your right to free speech might not be hassle-free.

"I'm not threatening to sue these people," Green told me. "I'm just telling them to preserve evidence. … Citizens have an absolute first amendment right to speak at public hearings. But with rights come responsibilities."

Green likened some of the opposition to the treatment center to "a lynch mob," and said people can "speak lies and spew venomous discrimination and hate."

Here's the thing. I'm sympathetic to Green's client, in that I think there's great need for more treatment centers and there's too much NIMBYism standing in the way.

But I think his tactics here are misguided. After all, the public's comments and emails to city officials are already part of the record. Going beyond that by threatening further intrusion into citizens' private computers, gadgets and lives seems more like the stuff of the KGB (or NSA.) And it seems meant to deliver a message: Unless you want trouble, it's better to keep your mouth shut and not get involved.

Last week, commissioner John Adornato concluded a meeting with a message to residents: "I beg of you, please keep coming. … Please don't let these bullying tactics, these scare tactics, keep you from coming out and speaking."

Said Stollberg: "It won't affect my activism. You can't allow something like this to stop you or deter you. Otherwise they can walk all over you. And then they win."

mmayo@tribune.com; 954-356-4508

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