Disgruntled ex-tenant ordered by court not to ‘interfer[e] … via any blogs … with [ex-landlords'] … business relationships’

[UPDATE: I hadn't realized this, but Ranaan Katz is a minority partner in the Miami Heat, as Ken White (Popehat) notes; thanks to commenter Valarauko for the pointer.]

From the Florida Court of Appeal decision in Wednesday’s Chevaldina v. R.K./FL Management, Inc. (Fla. Ct. App. Feb. 6, 2014):

[Background:] In 2009, the Chevaldines sued Raanan Katz, Daniel Katz, and two of Raanan Katz’s companies in Miami–Dade circuit court for breach of lease and defamation. Both cases were dismissed with prejudice in 2010. In May 2011, the appellees became aware of an anonymous blog about RK Associates and Mr. Katz. Some illustrative blog posts were: “Bottom line, when you sign a lease with RK Associates, Raanan Katz goes after YOUR money no matter what”; “If you do not want to lose your business, your investment, your ideas, think twice, talk to their tenants, and do your research to learn what can happen to you after signing the lease with the landlord like RK Associates”; and “Raanan Katz and Daniel Katz are the most immoral human-being[s] in the world. They are dare enough to take bread from little Jewish special needs child to support their luxury lifestyle [sic].” …

In this appeal, we review a temporary injunction in the circuit court action which determined that “the Defendants have blogged extensively about the Plaintiff and many of these blogs are arguably defamatory. Although ultimately a defamation trial will be held, this Court ORDERS the Defendants not to enter defamatory blogs in the future.” The court … [also] enjoined Ms. Chevaldina from “directly or indirectly interfering in person, orally, in written form or via any blogs or other material posted on the internet or in any media with Plaintiffs’ advantageous or contractual and business relationships,” ordered Ms. Chevaldina to remain at least 200 yards away from the [plaintiffs -- Raanan Katz, his son, and his daughter-in-law --] and their immediate families, and enjoined Ms. Chevaldina from trespassing upon the appellees’ properties….

An injunction should never be broader than is necessary to secure to the injured party relief warranted by the circumstances involved in the particular case. The injunction under review prohibits Ms. Chevaldina from: “directly or indirectly interfering in person, orally, in written form or via any blogs or other material posted on the internet or in any media with Plaintiffs’ advantageous or contractual business relationships”; and “directly or indirectly publishing any blogs or any other written or spoken matter calculated to defame, tortuously interfere with, invade the privacy of, or otherwise cause harm to Plaintiffs.” This injunction improperly burdens Ms. Chevaldina’s speech more than necessary, attempts to enjoin future defamation, and fails to put Ms. Chevaldina on notice as to what she may or may not do under the injunction….

[As to the 200-yard limit,] Section 784.046, Florida Statutes (2012), provides that a person may obtain an injunction for protection in cases involving repeat violence and requires that a sworn petition include specific facts and circumstances to form the basis upon which relief is sought. Repeat violence is defined as two incidents of stalking or violence. The act of stalking consists of “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly” following or harassing another person. § 784.048(2). The term “harass” is defined as engaging in a series of acts over a period of time “directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such person and serves no legitimate purpose.” § 784.048(2)….

The appellees argue that Ms. Chevaldina’s blog posts constituted “cyberstalking” and therefore provided “incidents of violence,” i.e., stalking, as to justify an injunction pursuant to section 784.046. However, the appellees failed to introduce evidence that specific blog posts were being used “to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images, or language … directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose.” § 784.048(1)(d); see also Murphy v. Reynolds, 55 So.3d 716, 717 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011) (“ ‘Harassment’ is a ‘course of conduct directed to a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress … and serves no legitimate purpose.’ ‘Cyberstalking’ entails harassment by means of electronic communications.”). Consequently, the record lacks a basis for finding stalking and fails to support a temporary injunction to enjoin stalking and trespassing….

Angry social media postings are now common. Jilted lovers, jilted tenants, and attention-seeking bloggers spew their anger into fiber-optic cables and cyberspace. But analytically, and legally, these rants are essentially the electronic successors of the pre-blog, solo complainant holding a poster on a public sidewalk in front of an auto dealer that proclaimed, “DON’T BUY HERE! ONLY LEMONS FROM THESE CROOKS!”

Existing and prospective customers of the auto dealership considering such a poster made up their minds based on their own experience and research. If and when a hypothetical complainant with the poster walked into the showroom and harangued individual customers, or threatened violence, however, the previously-protected opinion crossed the border into the land of trespass, business interference, and amenability to tailored injunctive relief. The same well-developed body of law allows the complaining blogger to complain, with liability for money damages for defamation if the complaints are untruthful and satisfy the elements of that cause of action. Injunctive relief to prohibit such complaints is another matter altogether.

There are aspects of Florida law with which I don’t entirely agree. For instance, I don’t think that the posts should have led to a restraining order even if a court found that they “cause[d] substantial emotional distress … and serve[] no legitimate purpose.”

But on balance I think this decision is quite right, and the original injunction was a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh | February 6