I do not know how many people drive the length of Highway 198 that unfurls onto the peaceful winding road through Priest Valley when traveling to Monterey, but it is my preferred route.
Along the way you will skirt Westlands, the largest agriculture water district in the United States, Harris Cattle Ranch, that produces 150 million tons of beef a year, and the only Starbucks directly on 198 since the company closed its Farmersville store.
Coincidentally, you will also pass through three small conservative rural towns that are embroiled in anti-SLAPP lawsuits – Hanford, Lemoore and Coalinga.
Not familiar with anti-SLAPP suits?
Neither was I until six months ago.
Each suit started with a city government, or government entity, filing a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against one of its residents who said or wrote something critical. The government with their ample resources uses the TRO or injunction to threaten and intimidate residents with the burden of legal fees unless they shut up.
This is an unfair tactic the government uses to silence individuals. The First Amendment forbids the government from restricting citizens’ freedom of speech with only a very few exceptions. Saying mean things about a city council member is not one of them.
This tactic is called a SLAPP suit or Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation. The sole purpose of these suits is to keep government critics quiet.
So California passed legislation to protect these citizens who have been SLAPPed.
It’s called an anti-SLAPP suit.
When the resident wins an anti-SLAPP motion, the lawsuit against them quickly terminates and their legal bills are paid by the city that sued them.
The Valley Voice has already reported extensively the City of Lemoore filing a TRO against City Council Member Holly Blair.
In her capacity as a city council member she speaks from the dais, gives radio interviews and regularly posts critical comments on Facebook about the Lemoore city manager and police chief.
In response the city filed a TRO to force her to stop.
The City of Lemoore filed their suit late January, and the last of many hearings will be April 5, when it’s possible the suit might be settled. There has been a mutual agreement between all parties not to talk to the press, so details are scant.
What’s interesting, though, about Lemoore, is that its law firm, Lozano Smith, knows this is not a winnable case yet proceeds to spend taxpayer money. Lozano Smith filed a similar case in Greenfield and resoundingly lost. The taxpayers ended up paying Lozano Smith’s fees and the defendant’s legal fees.
Speculation swirls around whether Lozano Smith pushed the city into filing the TRO against Ms. Blair, or if it was the other way around, with the Lemoore city manager and chief of police insisting the TRO be filed. Either way, the Lemoore taxpayers will be left paying their legal bills and most likely Ms. Blair’s legal expenses also.
The Hanford case is a little different. The Director of the Carnegie Museum, Patricia Dickerson, filed a TRO against Mike Quinn for recording the foot traffic in and out of the museum and criticizing her job performance at city council meetings and on Facebook.
The building is owned by the city and is the former Carnegie Library. It is now Hanford’s History museum and is heavily subsidized by the city, which makes it a government entity. As such, the residents have the right to critique Ms. Dickerson’s performance and how their tax dollars are spent.
The TRO was granted against Mr. Quinn and stays in effect at the least until the first hearing on April 5.
Ms. Dickerson in her petition stated that Mr. Quinn parks outside her place of business (the museum,) drives by her house, follows her in the park, and follows her husband on his way to pick up their daughter from school.
She stated, “He writes falsehoods on Facebook and reports falsehoods to city council who has the lease to my business.”
In response, Mr. Quinn filed an anti-SLAPP suit April 1 at the Kings County Superior Court. He states in his declaration that he and other concerned citizens believe that the museum is being mismanaged and that tax money is being wasted. In fact, the Carnegie Museum has been the subject of controversy over the past year about its management and the irregularity of how the museum accepts new members.
He states, “While I have been observing the foot traffic in and out of the museum, Petitioner (Ms. Dickerson) has repeatedly called the police to respond to my location. I was sitting in my car while it was parked in a public parking lot.” He was never arrested.
His anti-SLAPP suit points out that Mr. Quinn complained about the museum publicly at a city council meeting and then a month later Ms. Dickerson filed a TRO.
Mr. Quinn states, “I intended to again address the city council in March. However, just a few weeks after speaking to the city council, Petitioner filed this request for a restraining order, seeking, among other things, to explicitly prevent me from sharing my concerns about the museum with the City Council.”
In Coalinga, it is a classic case of the government versus the little guy.
Two TROs were filed against senior citizen, veteran, and lifelong Coalinga resident Greg Cody by City Council Member Adam Adkisson and his friend ,Robin Scott, who volunteers for the city.
Mr. Cody was served on Christmas Eve with both suits.
Mr. Adkisson said in his petition for a TRO filed by Coalinga’s lawyer Mario Zamora that Mr. Cody harasses him on Facebook and that he “yells harassing comments at me” during almost every city council meeting.
Ms. Scott, made similar complaints in her petition that Mr. Cody harasses her through social media.
Ms. Scott also accused Mr. Cody in her petition for a TRO of trying to run her husband over in his car. But according to the police report of the incident, Ms. Scott’s husband punched Mr. Cody, stole his phone and was then arrested.
Both Plaintiffs filed their TRO because they claim they fear Mr. Cody will physically harm them. Mr. Adkisson said, “I am emotionally harmed because I constantly fear for mine and my family’s safety….” Ms. Scott said on her petition, also filed by Mr. Zamora, “I fear that if Mr. Cody is not restrained he will physically harm me.”
That rings a bit hollow because Mr. Adkisson is a bounty hunter and has known Mr. Cody for years. If you are unsure what exactly a bounty hunter does, they chase down 250-pound muscle bound bad guys with warrants for their arrest–and the bad guys are usually armed.
Mr. Cody, on the other hand, is 62 years old, is 100% disabled, on oxygen, and is often seen lugging his tank to most city council meetings.
Mr. Adkisson, (and Ms. Scott) could probably knock Mr. Cody down with a hard stare.
In response, lawyers for Mr. Cody filed an anti-SLAPP suit. In the brief prepared by the Law Firm Melo and Sarsfield it is stated, “Petitioner Adam Adkisson is a politician and a member of the City of Coalinga City Council. He is the quintessential public figure. Respondent, Mr. Cody, has been publicly critical of Petitioner and his actions on the city council. In response, Petitioner has brought this action to silence the criticism by Respondent. The California anti-SLAPP law was enacted to protect speech such as respondent’s here.”
In the end, not only should we all feel grateful to live in a country that defends the freedom of speech, but we should also give kudos to those city council members who get it right.
When a member of the public gets up to the lectern to speak, Visalia City Council Member Greg Collins tilts his head, leans back in his chair, and rests the left side of his face in the crook of his hand while listening intently. Many times he incorporates what the public says into his comments before voting on an agenda item.
A year ago, then Mayor of Hanford David Ayers attentively listened to a woman on the verge of a mental break down as she skewered the city council about an unsolved crime. At the end of her comments Mr. Ayers thanked her.
Some members of the audience grumbled that the council shouldn’t have to put up with that, but I think they should. If an elected official can’t take public criticism, or hear out a despondent resident, then they have taken the wrong life path and need to resign.
We have a representative right now who won’t speak to his constituents because of his thin skin and his anger over being criticized. That has left the 22nd Congressional District with no representation in Washington.
The moral of the story is that city government shouldn’t file TROs against its own citizens. Granted there are plenty of nut cases out there, but just because someone criticizes you doesn’t make them one.
It’s our job as housewives, college students, artists, business owners, lawyers and doctors to criticize our government and elected officials, even if we get some facts wrong and even if we can’t articulate it perfectly.
And it’s our elected officials’ job to listen – without trying to shoot the messenger.