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Libel lawsuit against CPRC: It’s not over yet

Posted By Christine Anne Piesyk On Wednesday, July 30, 2008 @ 9:00 am In Business,News,Politics | 1 Comment

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With the CPRC vindicated just last week, Montgomery Court now says it made “a mistake.” The libel suit against the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition has been resurrected, with motions, discovery on August 4.

Last week the Montgomery County Circuit Court dismissed a libel suit filed against the grassroots Clarksville Property Rights Coalition regarding downtown redevelopment, but late today the Court notified the Institute for Justice of Virginia, CPRC’s legal representatives, that the signing of the order was “a mistake,” that oral arguments and discovery in this case will in fact be heard on Monday, August 4.

The Institute for Justice has just been informed by the clerk’s office of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, that a mistake in that office led to the accidental signing of an order granting IJ’s motion to dismiss a libel lawsuit brought against members of the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition (CPRC). As a result, that order will be rescinded and Judge Ross Hicks will hear oral argument on IJ’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Monday, August 11. The court will also conduct a discovery hearing on Monday, August 4.

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Joyce Vanderbilt, owner of Kelly's on Riverside Drive, displays the controversial ad that resulted in a libel suit against the CPRC.

The case, borne of a highly controversial ordinance passed by the Clarksville City Council in November, 2007, that “blighted” some two square miles of downtown Clarksville, culminated in a libel suit over a newspaper ad taking some city officials to task for their actions in supporting the ordinance that potentially opened the door for taking of properties by eminent domain and for private development.

In this case, Richard Swift, a developer who is a member of the Clarksville City Council, and Wayne Wilkinson, a member of Clarksville’s Downtown District Partnership, sued the CPRC because its members criticized them for supporting Clarksville’s controversial redevelopment plan, which authorizes the use of eminent domain for private development. In a newspaper ad, the CPRC noted that both Swift and Wilkinson are developers and said, “This Redevelopment Plan is of the developers, by the developers, and for the developers.” IJ represents the CPRC in the case.

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CPRC members: visible and vocal about redevelopment plans

The grassroots CPRC formed quickly to lobby on behalf of the 1800 residents and small business owners living and working in that district. Public meetings were standing room only. (see related Clarksville Online stories and documents on this issue by clicking the black “blightville” box on the right side of our homepage.)

Earlier today (Tuesday, July 29),the Institute for Justice received notice that Judge Ross Hicks of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County vindicated the right to protest government abuse by dismissing the libel lawsuit brought by Richard Swift, a developer who is a member of the Clarksville City Council, and Wayne Wilkinson, a member of Clarksville’s Downtown District Partnership, against members of the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition.

Swift and Wilkinson sued the CPRC because its members criticized them for supporting Clarksville’s controversial redevelopment plan, which authorizes the use of eminent domain for private development. In a newspaper ad, the CPRC noted that both Swift and Wilkinson are developers and said, “This Redevelopment Plan is of the developers, by the developers, and for the developers.” IJ represents the CPRC in the case. Jerry Martin of Barrett, Johnston & Parsley in Nashville serves as IJ’s local counsel.

The court’s original and “erroneous” dismissal of the case was quick: the decision came down less than three weeks after the Institute filed a motion to have the case dismissed. In fact, the court did not even wait to hear a response from Swift and Wilkinson’s attorney or have a hearing on the motion.

Laboring under the the initial report of victory for the CPRC, Atty. Bert Gall had said:

“The court’s decision is a tremendous victory for everyone who speaks out against the abuse of eminent domain. The decision puts thin-skinned politicians and developers on notice: If you file a frivolous lawsuit against people just for criticizing your public actions, your case will swiftly be thrown out of court.”

– Bert Gall, an IJ senior attorney

Across the country, in places like Renton, Wash., and Freeport, Texas, there has been an ominous trend of politicians and developers using frivolous litigation to suppress the speech of home and business owners who oppose the abuse of eminent domain for private development. The CPRC’s victory in Clarksville resoundingly reaffirms that the First Amendment protects that speech.

The national battle against eminent domain abuse is now focused in Tennessee. Not only did the CPRC stand up against an attempt to intimidate them from speaking out against the abuse of eminent domain in their city, but Joy Ford, the owner of a small country music business on storied Music Row in Nashville, is fighting the attempts of Nashville’s redevelopment agency to condemn her business and turn it over to a private developer who wants to build an office building. On July 21, the Institute announced that it would join Joy’s fight to save her business.


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