ACLU Defends Iowa Community Activist Sued for Speaking Out at City Council Meeting

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
June 30, 1999 12:00 am

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DES MOINES — Protecting the right to speak out at public meetings, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa today announced that it has joined the legal team in defense of Alice Rodine, one of the city’s most respected neighborhood activists.

In December of 1998, Rodine was sued for defamation in response to remarks she made in front of the Des Moines City Council about a closely held corporation which buys, rents and sells properties in her neighborhood.

The ACLU said it views Rodine’s defense as critical in its mission to preserve public input and debate within Iowa’s political arenas.

“We can think of few places where it would be more important for citizens to be comfortable in speaking their minds than when they are responding to an invitation for public comment at council meetings,” said Ben Stone, Executive Director of the ACLU of Iowa. “We cannot allow Alice Rodine and other important voices to be silenced through the expense, intimidation and prolonged harassment of anti-speech lawsuits.”

At the Council meeting, Rodine cautioned against rewarding Imperial Properties with an overly generous city offer to purchase two of its properties. She reminded the Council that the two properties under consideration had previously been allowed to deteriorate to the point of demolition. Rodine also called attention to Imperial’s official record of non-compliance and violations of city property codes, and their apparent disregard for the North Central Community neighborhood plan.

Imperial’s lawsuit was filed in the Iowa District Court for Polk County in December. Rodine, who continues to be represented by her chief counsel Mark Feldmann of Des Moines, has denied that her remarks were untrue or defamatory and has asserted further that her comments before the council were privileged. A defense fund has been set up to help cover Rodine’s legal costs.

In a related event, ACLU of Iowa Legislative Program Coordinator Marty Ryan announced today that special legislation was introduced this week in the state Senate to protect victims of SLAPP suits — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — in the political process.

The Anti-SLAPP legislation, S.F. 450, would assist people who are unfairly sued for their public remarks by requiring an early judicial decision on whether the litigation is meritorious. The accuser would have the initial burden of showing that his or her lawsuit is not simply an attempt at harassment or intimidation.

Other states, including Colorado, already have such legislation in place.

Although the bill, if passed, would come too late to protect Alice Rodine, the ACLU said that it supports this effort to legally protect citizens who exercise their right to address government bodies on issues of public concern.

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