Warner Norcross + Judd LLP is seeking dismissal of a lawsuit demanding $9 million in damages from a California-based company and two Bloomfield Township residents who have been sued by Township officials, because the lawsuit violates the First Amendment.
Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie and Treasurer Brian Kepes filed the lawsuit against Nextdoor.com Inc., a social media site, and the two residents, Val Murray and Kathleen Norton-Schock, who posted to the site. Township officials claim Nextdoor has allowed its message board to become a platform of “misinformation and bullying,” and that, as a result, a tax proposal they favored was defeated by a 2-1 margin.
Not so fast, say Warner partners Brian D. Wassom
and Matthew T. Nelson
in a motion filed today arguing that the case is an affront and threat to basic notions of representative democracy.
Their motion reads, in part: "The suit arises for the simple reason that the individual defendants successfully engaged in online politics. The only 'injuries' the plaintiffs allege are that the individual defendants made political statements in social media—specifically, that they criticized plaintiffs’ performance as elected officials, campaigned against a ballot measure plaintiffs favored, and expressed their views on matters of public concern. That is all.
"The suggestion that such a claim is even conceivable, much less viable, is breathtakingly absurd in light of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is a fundamental tenet of American society that all citizens are entitled and encouraged to engage in robust discourse on matters of public concern, no matter how agreeable or disagreeable one may find such speech."
Both Murray and Norton-Schock had met Nextdoor.com user validation requirements that include providing proof of community residency and signing in with real names. As approved users of the social platform who did nothing more than engage in discussion about local political issues, the women were stunned to be named in the lawsuit. The motion seeks to have the case against the two women immediately dismissed.
"Nextdoor is a social media platform purposefully designed to engage community residents on matters of common interest," Nelson said. "The complaint uses words like 'bully,' harass' and 'intimidate'; but the posts shown to justify those accusations are pretty straightforward conversations about the issues."
Warner’s motion reminds the court that the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech is so deeply ingrained in the U.S. legal system that the law protects even misinformed or mistaken speech. To do otherwise, the motion notes, would impermissibly chill participation in the democratic process that is a prerequisite to the American way of life.
"It's absurd to believe you can sue another person simply because you disagree with their opinion or would contest their facts," Wassom said. "Yet that's exactly what these elected Bloomfield Township officials are doing in this suit.”
The Oakland County Circuit Court is expected to schedule a hearing on the motion in the coming weeks.
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