Fane Lozman of Riviera Beach has been called a lot of names: crank, gadfly, provocateur, underdog and now First Amendment hero. He likes the First Amendment accolades best.
The city of Riviera Beach holds a lot less charitable view and has spent more than $1 million defending itself against his lawsuits. But Lozman now can claim two U.S. Supreme Court victories against the city, a rare feat for any individual.
His latest win came in an 8-1 decision written last month by retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. The case took more than 10 years. But the message is clear: a citizen’s First Amendment rights cannot be cut short by elected officials who don’t like what’s being said during a public meeting.
Lozman’s odyssey has the makings of a movie. The former U.S. Marine and self-made millionaire quit his business life in Chicago, bought a floating home and headed to the warm waters of Florida. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma destroyed his first chosen marina in North Bay Village, between Miami and Miami Beach.
His next stop: Riviera Beach. There, his 2-story floating home rested in a marina that city officials wanted to offer to a developer. One day before a state law went into effect barring cities from using eminent domain to take private land for private development, Riviera Beach pushed ahead. Lozman didn’t cotton to that plan.
To extricate him, the city alleged his floating home qualified as a “vessel” under maritime laws and could be confiscated. Not so fast. He argued not every floating object — please don’t call it a houseboat — qualified as a vessel. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him. Chief Justice John Roberts called it his favorite case of the term.
Unfortunately, it was too late for Lozman, whose floating home had already been taken from him and destroyed. That wasn’t the end of his rows with the city.
Through a freedom of information request, Lozman learned that in 2006, a councilmember suggested in a closed-door meeting that her colleagues intimidate him to try to stop his beefs. Others agreed. So five months later, when he appeared in an open comment session, where citizens are granted three minutes before the council, he’d barely begun to vent when she ordered a police officer to haul him out. He objected, and ended up handcuffed and ousted. No charges were filed.
A videotape of his ouster struck a nerve with Chief Justice Roberts, who called it pretty chilling, especially given his calm demeanor.
Lozman argued the orchestrated intimidation that led to his ouster violated his First Amendment rights. The arrest was payback, he said, for having criticized the city’s now-defunct plan to take private property using eminent domain. In a narrow ruling, the Supreme Court agreed that a free speech right may be separated from other issues, including resisting arrest.
Here’s why it matters. Across the nation, governments large and small too frequently try to thwart rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. They tell constituents they cannot criticize, they cannot speak, or they must pay exorbitant fees for copies of documents.
That’s why Lozman is a hero, and an exception. He had the time, tenacity and resources to fight retribution by government. And he won.
Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said his victory “puts government on notice that citizens have a right to air their grievances, protected under the Constitution.”
Lozman is rightly celebrating. His cases give hope to others who say it’s far too easy for public officials to forget they work for the people.
Even before his second Supreme Court victory, the Florida First Amendment Foundation honored Lozman in January for his willingness to pursue the case.
“This case is an important and powerful reminder: You can’t just make citizens shut up and sit down because you don’t like what we are saying,” said Peterson, whose foundation filed an amicus brief in Lozman’s case, its first Supreme Court foray. “Government depends too frequently on us not have the means and sometimes the will to take action.”
Justice Roberts is right. It is chilling to watch the video of Lozman being hauled off in handcuffs for daring to criticize government.
It’s our constitutional right to seek redress, to have access to records and to not face unreasonable impediments in our efforts to obtain public information.
And if we have a beef, as this ruling makes clear, it’s our right to speak up.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Andy Reid and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.