Injustice Seen Across the Political Board
By way of an update on the local situation, here’s a press release from Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC) President David Nelson:
Citing the important free speech issues involved in the case, the ACLU of Rhode Island today announced it has agreed to represent Tiverton resident David Nelson, the president of a local tax reform group, who has been sued for defamation by two Town Council members. Nelson, head of Tiverton Citizens for Change, was sued for making public comments alleging that Council members submitted “false” documentation to the State Department of
Revenue relating to an unapproved proposal for a tax increase. The ACLU called the complaint against Nelson “a classic SLAPP suit designed to intimidate town residents from speaking out on political matters.”
Nelson made the comment after the Town Council filed what it called an informal “checklist for eligibility” with the state to see if the Town could get permission to impose a tax increase beyond the 4.5% cap authorized by state law. The Town Council made this request without the knowledge of the town’s Budget Committee, the entity officially authorized to recommend a budget to the Financial Town Meeting, and which had formally proposed a budget below the cap. Arguing that the request was never publicly authorized by the Town Council and was prepared on the state documents necessary to formally apply for a state waiver from the tax cap, Nelson publicly charged town officials with submitting “false documentation to the State to
facilitate a tax increase.”
Last month, two Town Council members, Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda, sued Nelson for punitive damages, calling his comments “false, defamatory and harmful to plaintiffs’ reputation.” Their lawsuit is also against unknown individuals the council members say participated in preparing and sending the letter. Interestingly, in a letter to state finance officials after the Town Council’s actions came to light, the chair of the town budget committee also called the submission a “falsified document,” but he has not been sued.
Nelson has filed a counter-claim for damages under the state’s SLAPP suit law, and the ACLU has agreed to represent Nelson in getting the lawsuit against him dismissed. SLAPP suits (“Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”) refer to lawsuits brought to chill people from exercising their freedom of speech on matters of public concern.
Concerned about the use of SLAPP suits to try to stifle public debate on a variety of issues, the Rhode Island ACLU has succeeded in getting a number of similar suits dismissed since an anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 1995. In the first such case handled by the ACLU, the R.I. Supreme Court ordered dismissal of a defamation suit brought against North Kingstown resident Nancy Hsu Fleming for critical statements she made about a private landfill. Shortly thereafter, the ACLU also helped the South Kingstown Neighborhood Congress in a suit filed against it for public comments its members made against a local developer’s activities.
RI ACLU volunteer attorney Karen Davidson, who is representing Nelson, said today that the councilors’ suit was “a classic SLAPP suit designed to intimidate town residents from speaking out on political matters. The SLAPP suit statute was enacted in order to prevent just this type of litigation, and we are hopeful for a quick dismissal of the suit.” Nelson added: “Our bedrock constitutional rights allow us to express disagreement with elected officials and report on matters of public concern. l will not cower from this attempt to intimidate my public participation in local budget and taxation issues.”
Honestly, it’s difficult to understand what Durfee and Arruda are thinking, and the fact that support of Nelson spans from the ACLU to RISC suggests that they should reconsider. Several of us made comments in multiple venues calling out the documents sent to the state as “false,” because they absolutely were. It was actually Town Administrator James Goncalo who submitted them, and when we brought the matter to the Town Council’s attention, none but Jay Lambert thought it much worth discussing.
That doesn’t mean that Durfee and Arruda were in on Goncalo’s action, but as part of the generally fishy attempt to exceed the tax cap without actually voting to do so, the documents certainly fit a pattern. And that pattern, in my view, suggests that six out of seven current Town Councilors do not deserve their positions.
The two who filed the lawsuit should resign immediately and take a graceful exit from public office.