Imagine speaking out against a candidate or other public figure, and getting an injunction slapped on you! Not only do you no longer get to express your political views, but the injunctions also states you also must surrender your firearms, and appear at court to determine if the injunction should be permanent. That scenario played itself out for Cape Coral resident, and outspoken political commentator, Paul Barnes yesterday.
Mr. Barnes had been an outspoken critic on blogs and on the radio about Greg Eagle, and his son Dane Eagle, who was just elected to the Florida legislature. Barnes supported the younger Eagle’s primary opponent, and has been critical of him since he supported Charlie Crist when Crist left the Republican ticket to run as an independent. Greg Eagle has recently been front page news on his own, for allegations of mishandling and/or fraudulently handling a land trust, costing dozens of people their life savings. Mr. Barnes was a frequent commenter on the related stories online, in addition to posts on Facebook and in other media.
The issue came to a head a couple of weeks ago, as both Mr. Barnes and Greg Eagle were attending Octoberfest in Cape Coral, when they ran into each other. Mr. Barnes approached Mr. Eagle, criticized him for his alleged wrongdoings in the real estate issue, and called him an expletive. He followed up the next day with a similar email. Mr. Eagle then filed for a stalking injunction under the Florida’s new stalking statute, and was granted a temporary injunction, pending hearing.
This stuck me as an improper attempt to chill politically motivated speech. There are very few instances where speech can be restricted due to the protections of the First Amendment. The most famous examples are “fighting words” or shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Conversely, criticism of a public figure or similarly politically motivated speech is exactly the sort of expression the First Amendment is designed to protect. Consider my hypothetical at the beginning of this article: it’s offensive to our system of discourse and harmful to the democratic process. Fortunately, Mr. Barnes had a right to have a hearing on the matter before the injunction was finalized.
Mr. Barnes was represented at the hearing by an excellent Fort Myers defense attorney, and friend of my firm, Aaron O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien was able to convey the politically motivated background to the story that made it clear that an injunction was not appropriate. Judge Carlin astutely recognized that this situation did not present a course of conduct that constituted illegal harassment so as to qualify as stalking, or to warrant an injunction, and the injunction was dismissed.
I have previously criticized the stalking injunction statute for vagueness, and fortunately the judge did not allow the petitioner to use the statute for such a broad scope. The provisions for injunction serve an important purpose for people who are being legitimately wronged by real harassment, but there is a risk that such a broadly worded law could potentially encompass lawful behavior, and especially politically motivated expression. I may not agree with the way Mr. Barnes expressed his message, but it is paramount under our Constitution to protect his right to free speech.