ACLU Backs Free Speech Rights for PA Citizens Fighting Chain Store in Their Neighborhood

September 12, 2000 12:00 am

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Pittsburgh, PA — The American Civil Liberties Union is going to bat for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and other organizations and individuals facing a $7 million lawsuit for for opposing a new CVS Pharmacy in Homestead, PA.

“Standing up for your community is constitutionally protected activity,” said Witold Walczak, executive director of the ACLU’s Greater Pittsburgh affiliate.

In a brief filed in U.S. District Court on Friday, the ACLU accuses Gustine Properties Inc. and CVS Pharmacy Inc. of filing their lawsuit to retaliate against those who blocked the building of the pharmacy.

“Do you know what CVS stands for? ‘Consumer Value Stores.'” Walczak said. “Yet here you’ve got this consumer value company suing a bunch of consumers for $7 million for opposing their development. That’s a heck of a way to do business.”

In July, Gustine and CVS filed a federal suit against Homestead and 16 other defendants, seeking at least $7 million in damages over the companies’ failed attempt to win approval for a 10,000-square-foot pharmacy on East Eighth Avenue. The lawsuit says the 17 defendants conspired to deprive the companies of their civil rights by blocking the approval.

The ACLU’s “friend of the court” filing describes the action as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or “SLAPP” suit. Such suits, according to the brief, are often filed by large developers against individuals in an attempt to intimidate them.

The legal brief says the CVS suit is meritless and intended as retaliation against those who used their First Amendment rights to speak out in public meetings, write letters, lobby politicians and file zoning appeals to stop the pharmacy project.

The ACLU legal brief was filed only on behalf of the nongovernmental defendants named in the suit: the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and its president, Arthur Ziegler, and general counsel, Elisa Cavalier; the Homestead Area Economic Revitalization Corp.; Steel Valley Enterprise Zone Corp.; and local business owners George DeBolt, David Lewis and Judith Tener.

The other defendants are Homestead, its council, the planning commission, Mayor Betty Esper, former council president Lloyd Cunningham, Councilwoman Cheryl Chapman and incumbent council President Dorothy Kelly. West Homestead and its mayor, John Dindak, are also named.

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