21. Plaintiff JOE GRIFFIN is an outspoken political activist who has run for local political office and who maintains a political blog concentrating on the government and officials of White Springs and Hamilton County. Plaintiffs has been extremely critical of local officials, including MILLER, TOMLINSON and RIVERS.
22. Plaintiff JOE GRIFFIN has repeatedly sued the TOWN OF WHITE SPRINGS on a variety of state law claims generally associated with Plaintiffs’ view that they have been treated in a discriminatory fashion or that Town practices have been illegal in some respect.
23. Earlier in 2014, Plaintiff JOE GRIFFIN ran (unsuccessfully) as a candidate for Town Council. The election was a close and contentious one.
24. Plaintiffs’ blog is known as the “White Springs Journal” which is available on-line at http://www.whitespringsnews.com/. That blog has been published continuously from March 31, 2012 to the current date. The blog is not “broadcast” to third parties or thrust
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upon persons who do not want to hear the message, but rather must be specifically sought out by persons wishing to read the contents of the blog.1
25. KARIN GRIFFIN is the editor of the blog. JOE GRIFFIN is the primary contributor of content for the blog, while KARIN GRIFFIN provides occasional commentary and illustrations (political cartoons and drawings).
26. Plaintiffs’ postings on the White Springs Journal blog concentrate on the unreasonably high sewer and water rates in White Springs as well as various shortcomings of the Town’s officials, including MILLER, TOMLINSON and RIVERS. Plaintiffs have also criticized the Town’s funding of the Fire Department.
27. MILLER and TOMLINSON have complained publicly at Town meetings about Plaintiffs’ blog posts and the particular criticisms directed towards them and the quality of their service to the TOWN.
28. More recently, many of Plaintiffs’ blog posts have focused on the Town’s failures to comply with Florida’s public records laws. In this respect, TOMLINSON has been the frequent focus of criticism as she is Town Clerk and the official charged with responding to Chapter 119 requests.
29. Plaintiffs’ blog posts are protected under the First Amendment as core political speech. Plaintiffs have the right to freely express their opinions concerning the governance of the TOWN and of those elected and appointed officials who run the local government.
1 As with other websites, a viewer must make the intentional decision to access the site by typing in the URL and pushing the “enter” button. Viewers could not accidentally view the content against their will.
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29. The law is well-established that Plaintiffs have a right to freely express their political opinions through the medium of an Internet blog without interference or censorship by government or government officials.
30. Plaintiffs frequently submit public records requests to the Defendants pursuant to Article 1, §24 of the Florida Constitution and Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. Those requests cover the entire spectrum of Plaintiffs’ political interests and the responses to those inquiries are frequently used as source material for Plaintiffs’ blog posts.
31. Florida recognizes an overwhelming public policy interest in favor of ready access to all manner of public records. The Florida Constitution includes the following express guarantee of access:
(a) Every person has the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state, or persons acting on their behalf
Art. 1, §24, FLA.CONST. The reasons for seeking access to the records are irrelevant as a matter of law – even access for “bad reasons” is free and unfettered. See, e.g., Barfield v.
Sch. Bd. of Manatee County, 135 So. 3d 560, 562 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014) (“[T]he public
records law ‘is to be construed liberally in favor of openness, and all exemptions from disclosure are to be construed narrowly and limited to their designated purpose.’ … ‘[W]hen in doubt the courts should find in favor of disclosure rather than secrecy.’ … An individual’s reason for requesting a public record is irrelevant.” (internal citations omitted).
32. Timely access to public records is the cornerstone of a citizen’s ability to become informed of government actions and to petition government for the redress of his grievances: if one cannot learn about government actions, there is precious little ability to challenge those actions.
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29. Plaintiffs’ right to request public records from government is fully protected under the First Amendment right to petition government for redress of grievances as well as under Florida law.
33. Plaintiffs’ right to request public documents under the First Amendment without retaliation by government or its officials is well-established.
34. The TOWN, through its employees, MILLER, TOMLINSON and RIVERS have repeatedly thwarted, delayed and interfered with Plaintiffs’ ability to obtain public records. Plaintiffs allege the following particulars:
A. Defendants claim to have “misplaced” Plaintiffs’ public records requests as an excuse to delay a response.
B. Defendants almost never respond to a request unless Plaintiffs makes multiple demands for compliance.
C. TOMLINSON will often reply that no document exists when there is open and obvious evidence that the document in fact exists. When attention is called to the fact that the requested document has been referenced in other documents by name or cited by public officials, TOMLINSON will eventually comply with the request and produce the “missing” document.
D. MILLER and TOMLINSON have complained publicly at Town meetings that Plaintiffs are “abusing the privilege” by making repeated requests for public records and asking whether “something can be done” to curtail Plaintiffs’ efforts to obtain public records.
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35. It is fair to characterize Plaintiffs as polarizing and controversial figures in the local community. They have earned their fair share of political enemies, including MILLER, TOMLINSON and RIVERS.
36. Defendants MILLER, TOMLINSON and RIVERS bear personal animosity towards Plaintiffs on account of their activism and their criticism of the officials’ actions and failures to act.
37. The TOWN’s councilmen have stated at public meetings that they believe that MILLER, TOMLINSON and RIVERS should not be subject to “political attacks” by the Plaintiffs and that Plaintiffs were abusing their rights under Chapter 119 by submitting multiple public records request. A majority of the TOWN councilmen stated that they would undertake efforts to support MILLER, TOMLINSON and RIVERS against the Plaintiffs.
38. On January 19, 2014, MILLER, acting in her official capacity as Mayor of WHITE SPRINGS, filed a complaint with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office against Plaintiffs on behalf of the TOWN OF WHITE SPRINGS. A copy of that document entitled “Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Witness Statement” is attached as Exhibit “A” to this Complaint.
39. MILLER stated in the Witness Statement that “Mr. Griffin continues to disrupt the operations & business of the town of White Springs”. There are three factual allegations in support of that statement:
A. “Mr. & Mrs. Joe Griffin continue to blog misrepresentations about me in my conduct as mayor of White Springs.”
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B. “They continue to harass town employees with frivilous (sic) 119 requests
– requesting the same information multiple times and blogging misinformation about employees.”
C. “Mr. Griffin has contact candidates for the open town manager position – some multiple times. … It is my understanding that he has stated to candidates that they will get to known him very well if they are offered and accept the position”.
40. MILLER’s witness statement was submitted on behalf of the TOWN in her capacity as Mayor and represents the official and authorized action of the TOWN.
41. On January 19, 2014, TOMLINSON, acting in her official capacity as Finance Director and Clerk of WHITE SPRINGS, filed a complaint with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office against Plaintiffs on behalf of the TOWN OF WHITE SPRINGS. A copy of that document entitled “Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Witness Statement” is attached as Exhibit “B” to this Complaint.
42. TOMLINSON stated in the Witness Statement that Plaintiffs were abusing their rights by making Chapter 119 requests to the Town and that JOE GRIFFIN suggested that candidates for city manager review his blog. The particular accusations are as follows:
A. “As the Town Clerk & Finance Mr. Griffin emails almost every day 119 requests to my email account, firstname.lastname@example.org. Many of his request are petty or negative statement (sic) about departments or town business.”
B. “He has requested copies of every resume we have received for the town manager position”.
C. “Some of the applicants have informed me by phone conversation that Mr. Griffin has contacted them…. That they need to check out his blog to see what is going on
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in White Springs. This blog is written by Joe and Karin Griffin. Most of all, it represents Joe’s writing”.
43. TOMLINSON’s witness statement was submitted on behalf of the TOWN in her capacity as Finance Director and Clerk and represents the official and authorized action of the TOWN.
44. On January 19, 2014, RIVERS, acting in her official capacity as Administrative Assistant of WHITE SPRINGS, filed a complaint with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office against Plaintiffs on behalf of the TOWN OF WHITE SPRINGS. A copy of that document entitled “Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Witness Statement” is attached as Exhibit “C” to this Complaint.
45. RIVERS stated in the Witness Statement that Plaintiffs had unfairly criticized her performance as Administrative Assistant as well as the actions of unnamed council members on his blog. The particular accusations are as follows:
A. “I applied for the position of Administrative Assistant which is the job I currently have with the Town of White Springs. He [Griffin] has referred to me as “not the brightest or the best for my position. He has drawn pictures of me stuffing money into a purse.”
B. “They have pictures on their blog of council members (current/past) making statements to discredit them”.
46. RIVERS’ witness statement was submitted on behalf of the TOWN in her capacity as Administrative Assistant and represents the official and authorized action of the TOWN.
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47. MILLER, TOMLINSON and RIVERS signed their witness statement with the specific intent of using them to secure the investigation and prosecution of the Plaintiffs by law enforcement officers. Defendants urged the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office to investigate Plaintiffs and charge them with a “crime” for posting comments on their blog and for making Chapter 119 public records requests.
48. Under pressure from the TOWN and from the individual Defendants, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation of the Plaintiffs.
49. Deputy Pearsall Fouraker conducted the investigation on behalf of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. As part of that investigation Deputy Fouraker spoke to the individual Defendants and the Chief of Police for WHITE SPRINGS. Deputy Fouraker also sought an interview with the Plaintiffs, but the Plaintiffs asserted their constitutional right to remain silent and to consult with an attorney.
50. Defendants participated in an investigation by the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in which the individual Defendants repeated the comments made in their written witness statements.
51. In addition to the actions taken by the individual Defendants, TRACY RODRIQUENZ, the Police Chief for WHITE SPRINGS, personally lobbied the Sheriff’s Office to bring charges against the Plaintiffs. According to the Offense Report discussed below “Chief Rodriquenz requests warrants for Joe and Karin Griffin on the above charge”.
52. In pressing for Plaintiffs’ arrest for making blog posts and Chapter 119 public requests, RODRIQUENZ was acting in her official capacity as Chief of Police. Her actions represent the official and authorized action of the TOWN.
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53. Deputy Fouraker authored an “Offense Report” dated June 18, 2014, which documented the complaints made by the Defendants against the Plaintiffs. A copy of the June 18, 2014 Offense Report is attached as Exhibit “D” to this Complaint.
54. The Offense Report lists the victim as “WHITE SPRINGS, TOWN OF”.
55. The Offense Report also includes a narrative summarizing the results of the Deputy’s investigation and documenting the particular complaints lodged by the Defendants. The key features of that narrative are the following:
I was contacted by White Springs Police Chief, Tracey Rodriquenz in reference to the harassment of the Town of White Springs by Joe and Karin Griffin via their blog, Whitespringsjournal.com…. Witnesses state that the Griffin’s (sic) include on the blog what appears to be hand drawn likenesses of city employees involved in activities that are inappropriate or illegal and statements calling employees crooks, liars, and using untrue quotes. It is stated that Mr. Griffin emails and sends 119 requests almost daily that include petty or negative statements.
“Chief Rodriquenz requests warrants for Joe and Karin Griffin on the above charge”.
56. At the time they submitted the “Witness Statements” described above and urged that Plaintiffs be prosecuted, Defendants knew that Plaintiffs have a First Amendment right to criticize government and government officials on their Internet blog. Defendants further knew that Plaintiffs had a right to access public records and to petition government for the redress of their grievances.
57. Defendants submitted the “Witness Statements” described above and urged that Plaintiffs be prosecuted with the specific intent and purpose of censoring Plaintiffs’ political speech on their blog and to dissuade Plaintiffs from submitting further public records requests.
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58. Defendants’ actions in submitting the “Witness Statements and urging Plaintiffs’ prosecution were intentional and malicious and done with full knowledge that such actions violated Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights and the equivalent protections of the Florida Constitution. Defendants fully intended to violate Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights and they, unfortunately, succeeded in doing so.
59. The investigation of the Plaintiffs at the Defendants’ urging was nothing short of a tyrannical campaign to punish Plaintiffs for their political activities.
60. The investigation of the Plaintiffs at the Defendants’ urging was based on the content of Plaintiffs’ political speech. Defendants objected to the unflattering comments made about the TOWN and its officials and sought to punish Plaintiffs solely on the basis of that political speech.
61. The actions of Defendants, acting under color of state law, violated Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to engage in political speech over the Internet in the form of blog postings and to seek information from government guaranteed to Plaintiffs under Florida law, and interfered with their ability to petition the government for redress of grievances.
62. Defendants’ actions constitute a prior restraint on speech as they made use of the police power to directly censor Plaintiffs’ speech on the basis of content without the approval of a Judge, following an evidentiary hearing, during which the status quo was maintained.
63. As a result of the Defendants’ charges and the police investigation, Plaintiffs have curtailed their Chapter 119 public records requests and have “toned down” their blog posts in an effort to avoid prosecution or further police action.
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64. Plaintiffs’ speech has been chilled as they have a reasonable fear that they will be investigated further and will ultimately be prosecuted for engaging in political speech over the Internet and by seeking information from government in the form of public records requests.
65. This fear is based on the fact that there has actually been a police investigation of their political activities coupled with the near certainty that Plaintiffs’ political activities will again bring them into conflict with Defendants.
66. Plaintiffs have also suffered grave emotional harm as a result of the police investigation and the prospect that they will be prosecuted for their First Amendment- protected activities.
67. Plaintiffs are suffering irreparable injury and are threatened with irreparable injury in the future by reason of the Defendants’ actions to censor Plaintiffs’ speech and political rights. Plaintiffs have no plain, adequate, nor complete remedy to protect their constitutional rights and to redress the wrongs and illegal acts complained of, other than immediate and continuing injunctive relief.
68. Plaintiffs will suffer a continuing violation of their civil rights and liberties as a result of the Defendants’ actions should an injunction not issue.
69. A permanent injunction will preserve Plaintiffs’ civil rights and reduce the need to compensate Plaintiffs with money damages for further violations of their rights.
70. The harm which would be suffered by the Plaintiffs without an injunction
— the loss of their constitutional rights — exceeds any conceivable harm the Defendants would suffer if they are prohibited from pursuing actions which clearly violate the most cherished principles of the First Amendment.
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71. A permanent injunction prohibiting Defendants from engaging in such unconstitutional actions in the future would not be contrary to the public interest.