Sued for Protesting Eminent Domain Abuse: Clarksville, Tenn., Activists Fight Frivolous Lawsuit Filed by Thin-Skinned Politician and Developers 

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 30, 2008

Arlington, Va—Richard Swift and Wayne Wilkinson are developers in Clarksville, Tenn., who are using the power of government to benefit developers—and they sued citizens, demanding $500,000, simply for saying so.

Today, those citizens, members of the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition, a grassroots group formed to fight the abuse of eminent domain in their community, are fighting back with the help of the Institute for Justice. IJ, a non-profit, public interest law firm that defends property rights and First Amendment freedoms nationwide, today filed a motion to dismiss Swift and Wilkinson’s lawsuit.

On May 3, the CPRC ran an ad in the local newspaper, The Leaf-Chronicle, criticizing Clarksville’s proposed redevelopment plan and its backers, including Swift and Wilkinson. Swift is not only a developer, but also a member of the Clarksville City Council—an elected official with the ability to vote for eminent domain for private development. Wilkinson is a member of Clarksville’s Downtown District Partnership.

The ad, noting that both Swift and Wilkinson are developers, said, “This Redevelopment Plan is of the developers, by the developers, and for the developers.”

Six days after the ad appeared, Swift and Wilkinson sued the group and its members for defamation.

“Swift and Wilkinson are thin-skinned bullies trying to silence and intimidate their critics with frivolous litigation,” said Bert Gall, an Institute for Justice senior attorney. “All citizens have a First Amendment right to speak out against government abuse—without getting sued for their speech by the very people whose actions they are protesting.”

Indeed, political criticism like the CPRC’s ad occurs every day and has been a mainstay of debate on public issues since America’s founding.

“If politicians and public figures could sue anyone who criticized them, everyone in America would need a lawyer,” added Gall. “But under the First Amendment, you shouldn’t need a lawyer to speak out about politics.”

“We spoke the truth and expressed an opinion,” said Joyce Vanderbilt, a member of CPRC and owner of Kelly’s Big Burger, which is in the redevelopment zone. “In America, you have a right to do that. But I was concerned that we could get sued again for simply expressing our opinions. A lawsuit is scary even when you know you’ve done nothing wrong.”

Being the subject of a pending lawsuit is intimidating—and that is the point. At first, the members of the group became reluctant to speak out against the plan and worried about hiring a lawyer and defending themselves in court. But then they decided to fight back.

“Politicians and developers have to learn that they cannot bully us and other activists into submission by filing frivolous lawsuits,” said Debbie Hunt, a member of CPRC. Debbie’s home, which has been in her family since 1929, is in the redevelopment area. “This lawsuit violates my right to speak out against the abuse of power. We’re fighting not just for us, but for every home and business owner who find themselves in a similar situation.”

For home and small business owners in Clarksville and nationwide, the ability to protect what they own depends on the right to speak freely. Especially after the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates to eminent domain abuse in its infamous Kelo decision, protest is the most effective way for property owners to defend what is rightfully theirs.

But apparently politicians and developers do not like that, as there are signs of an ominous nationwide trend of politicians and developers abusing free speech rights in Kelo’s wake.

In Freeport, Texas, Wright Gore, III, is fighting to save his family business from being condemned to make way for a private marina. The developer, H. Walker Royall, sued Wright for several million dollars for writing on his website, “Walker takes your property, you get the bill, you get the boot,” and other criticisms of the developer. Developers in Renton, Wash., sued Inez Peterson for her activism opposing a redevelopment plan. And in St. Louis, the city government is trying to force Jim Roos to take down a mural painted on the side of his building—in a redevelopment zone and subject to eminent domain abuse—that calls for the city to “End Eminent Domain Abuse.”

“Across the nation, politicians and developers who abuse eminent domain for private gain are trying to muzzle property owners who speak out to defend their neighborhoods by dragging them into court,” said Gall. “By halting Swift and Wilkinson’s intimidation tactics, we will set an example that activists fighting eminent domain abuse will not be silenced by such attempts at petty censorship.”