Maggy Hurchalla joked this spring that all she could offer a billionaire who won a $4.4 million judgment against her after she exercised her free speech rights were "two kayaks and an aging Toyota.’’ The billionaire didn’t laugh. This week, Martin County sheriff’s deputies armed with a court order seized the 14-year-old car and the kayaks — the only property owned by the 77-year-old sister of late Attorney General Janet Reno. This bullying should send a chill through every Floridian who cherishes their constitutional rights to free speech and to petition their government, and the Florida Supreme Court ultimately will have to correct this miscarriage of justice.
The David vs. Goliath drama played out on Florida’s east coast with themes that include the environment and the water supply, open government and a citizen’s right to protest to their elected officials. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Craig Pittman reported in May, billionaire George Lindemann Jr. put together a group to buy 2,200 acres of sugar cane fields near Lake Okeechobee in Martin County that is known as Lake Point. The idea was to dig up rocks to sell for construction projects and use the mining pits to store and clean water from the lake. By 2009, the South Florida Water Management District and the Martin County Commission signed off on the deal.
Then it got more complicated. Lake Point came up with a new idea in 2011 to sell the water in the pits. Lindemann told Pittman that Lake Point actually would have been paid for storing and cleaning the water, because nobody can sell water without state permission. But the idea didn’t sit well with the water management district or Martin County, and Hurchalla protested after the concept became public in 2012.
Hurchalla sent emails to Martin County commissioners urging them to get out of their agreement with Lake Point, and the deal fell apart. Lake Point sued the water management district, Martin County and Hurchalla. It turned out that Hurchalla sent some emails to the county commissioners’ personal accounts and the county failed to turn them over. Two commissioners have been charged with violating public records laws, and the water management district and Martin County settled for millions with Lake Point in 2017. Hurchalla refused to apologize and went to trial, where Lake Point lawyers suggested there was something "sinister’’ about her deleting her emails to county commissioners — which as a private citizen she had no obligation to keep. Yet a circuit court jury in Martin County ruled against her in February and awarded Lake Point absurd damages of $4.4 million.
Talbot "Sandy’’ D’Alemberte, the former American Bar Association president working pro bono on Hurchalla’s appeal, accurately calls this a classic SLAPP lawsuit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation aimed at intimidating and silencing critics. "She did nothing but send emails to county commissioners,’’ he told the Times editorial board Tuesday. "What they’re really coming after is your rights to petition the government and free speech.’’ The First Amendment Foundation (disclosure: Times Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens serves on the foundation’s board), the Florida League of Women Voters and the Florida Press Association are among the organizations planning to file a brief in support of Hurchalla’s appeal.
That appeal to the Fourth District Court of Appeal based in West Palm Beach isn’t likely to be heard until early next year, and then the case is likely to move to the Florida Supreme Court. Hurchalla could have posted a bond to protect her car and kayaks, but D’Alemberte said the cost would have been prohibitive. So deputies towed away the Toyota Monday, and they picked up the old kayaks, including one Hurchalla and her sister used on the Potomac River as Secret Service agents protecting the attorney general trailed behind.
"There is something very childish about thinking that if they take away my car and my toys I will burst into tears and stop defending the First Amendment,’’ Hurchalla wrote in an email to several reporters. "The car and the kayaks can be replaced. The First Amendment cannot.’’
Agreed. Florida needs more engaged citizens like Maggy Hurchalla who aren’t afraid to tell government officials what they think — not fewer.