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CCV, City Settle CityBeat's First Amendment Lawsuit

By John Fox · October 7th, 2009 · Editorial
It’s been a good couple of weeks here at CityBeat. First off, the MidPoint Music Festival, in its second year under our control, was a huge success despite the rain.

Then last week I signed two settlement documents to conclude our 2008 lawsuit against Citizens for Community Values (CCV), the City of Cincinnati and dozens of other local government officials and conservative civic leaders. After a long year of fighting for our First Amendment right to publish CityBeat without government interference, I’m pleased and gratified to wrap up the legal proceedings on such a positive note.

As you might recall, CityBeat filed a federal lawsuit in July 2008 charging government officials in Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Campbell and Kenton counties in Northern Kentucky and Dearborn County in Indiana — along with a coalition of local religious and nonprofit leaders led by CCV — of violating our First Amendment rights, conspiracy to violate our First Amendment rights and tortious interference with our business relationships.

Our case was assigned to Judge S. Arthur Spiegel in U.S. District Court and wound through the legal system over the past year. Several defendants were released, some by us and some by Spiegel. We completed the written discovery phase and were about to prepare for depositions and the trial when CCV and the city approached us with offers to settle.

The City of Cincinnati agreed to pay CityBeat $2,500 to settle the lawsuit claims and cover any attendant costs. Terms of the CCV settlement agreement are confidential. We released all of the remaining individual defendants, and we’re only awaiting Spiegel’s signature before the case is officially dismissed.

I’m relieved to be finished with the legal battle, as it was distracting at times over the past year, but I remain convinced that standing up to the CCV coalition’s threats and intimidation was the right thing to do. After all, the only reason bullies do what they do is because they think they can get away with it.

The bullying started on the morning of June 9, 2008, when ex-Cincinnati City Councilman Charlie Winburn — now running for council again — led a news conference at City Hall to ask CityBeat to stop running adult services advertisements in our paper and on our Web site. Winburn and the CCV coalition also delivered a letter to us to “appeal to your integrity as a corporate citizen” and “eliminate the adult services category and refuse to accept ads elsewhere for sexual services.”

After ending the letter “Sincerely,” a total of 39 individuals signed it, from CCV President Phil Burress and Bishop E.

Lynn Brown, 2nd Episcopal District CME Church, to Paula Westwood, executive director of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati.

Among the 39 signees were several people identified in their official capacities as local government leaders and, in all but one case, as law enforcement officials: Kenton County Attorney Garry Edmondson, Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis, Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Monzel, Dearborn County Attorney Aaron Negangard, Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas H. Streicher Jr. and Campbell County Attorney Justin Verst.

The letter referenced recent prostitution arrests and raids in the Tristate by the Organized Crime Division of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, the Vice Control Section of the Cincinnati Police Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Indianapolis and connected them to CityBeat’s adult ads.

In fact, the letter claimed, CityBeat and citybeat.com were “primary avenues through which the sex-for-sale industry in greater Cincinnati markets their destructive services.”

The message to us was loud and clear: Stop running all adultoriented ads or the area’s top cops and prosecutors would come down hard on CityBeat.

We initially chalked up this prostitution publicity stunt to CCV’s desperate search for a relevant issue in a presidential election year. Then CCV’s Web site posted an item about the news conference and letter titled “CityBeat newspaper accused of accepting prostitution ads.”

The “accusation” quickly turned from a stunt to a threat — as in the top law enforcement officials in five local jurisdictions conspiring to hurt us and maybe even put us out of business.

It was preposterous to claim that CityBeat was solely responsible for the problem of prostitution in the Tristate, just as it was preposterous to demand that we ban legitimate businesses and individuals from advertising their goods and services in CityBeat because a few bad apples had been arrested.

So a few weeks later CityBeat staff rallied on Fountain Square to deliver a public rebuke to the CCV coalition’s demands and to stand up for our integrity as corporate citizens. We listed the kinds of issues we support — tolerance, diversity, creativity, gay pride, city living, public transit, performing and visual arts, local music, environmental responsibility and holding public officials accountable — that have helped nudge stodgy Cincinnati into the 21st century.

Most importantly, we reminded people on the Square that CityBeat believes in and values freedom of speech and freedom of the press. And, at its heart, that’s what this lawsuit was all about.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, among other prohibitions, that government can’t abridge the freedom of speech or of the press. That’s the key relationship: government and the press.

CCV and the individuals we sued have their own freedom of speech rights to complain about CityBeat content and advertisers — that’s not what our lawsuit was about. Once they conspired with the government officials to threaten us, however, they crossed the legal line.

There were plenty of mornings after the June 9 news conference when I wondered if I’d see police cars parked in front of our building, officers carrying out computers and file cabinets. A raid like that, shutting down the paper for an issue or two, would have seriously damaged CityBeat.

So we filed the lawsuit to keep the business running, to push back against government intimidation and to remind public officials that they can’t use their official capacity and office to promote a private group’s narrow moral agenda. With the lawsuit settled, I’m pleased that we accomplished all three goals.

A few months after we filed the lawsuit, in fact, the City of Cincinnati revised its policy regarding outside groups using City Hall for their own private or commercial purposes.

I’d like to thank Louis Sirkin, Jennifer Kinsley and Scott Nazzarine for their legal representation and guidance during this ordeal. Cincinnati is lucky to have such well-respected and tenacious First Amendment defenders in our midst.

As Sirkin and I discussed lessons learned from our lawsuit, he made a good point that’s worth repeating: Government officials must remember that they serve all citizens in their jurisdiction and must stop kowtowing to pressure groups such as CCV that threaten to turn them out of office if they don’t promote the group’s agenda.

In other words, public officials serve and protect the Constitution, not their friends.

CONTACT JOHN FOX: jfox@citybeat.com



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