Government destroys tea-party leader for opposing Obama
A court fight that erupted when state regulators targeted for punishment a businessman because they didn’t like his criticism of President Obama is being submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in the hopes that the First Amendment’s free-speech provision will be affirmed there.
The Nebraska case focuses on the retaliation imposed by state officials: John Munn who then was director of the Nebraska Department of Banking and Finance, assistant director Jack Herstein and adviser Rodney R. Griess.
The case was brought on behalf of Robert Bennie, a successful financial adviser who was a leader of the Lincoln, Nebraska, tea party and was quoted in a newspaper describing Obama as a “communist.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation, whose last nine cases before the Supreme Court all have been victories for the plaintiffs, are on the case for Bennie, submitting their petition to the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
The state regulators didn’t like Bennie’s speech and pressured his company until he eventually lost his job, the petition states.
Griess, for example, forwarded an email to Herstein stating, “Bob [Bennie] always is seen wearing a cowboy hat lately, so I say ‘Hang Him High.'”
The regulators, as part of their attack on Bennie, threatened his employer, stating “the department may invoke whatever administrative action deemed necessary and appropriate under its authority against both Mr. Bennie and/or LPL Financial to insure compliance.”
The district court judge who heard the case confirmed the evidence of that antipathy, expressly disapproving “of the defendants’ conduct.”
The court found it was apparent, “from emails and the followup inquires of LPL, that the department had an interest in [Bennie’s] statements of political opinion.”
The regulators’ denial “[was] simply not credible,” the judge found.
“The court found that Griess, Herstein, and Munn ‘were looking for reasons’ to go after Bennie after they read his statements about President Obama,” the petition states.
The judge said, “Some of the questions asked of LPL would not have been asked had it not been for the plaintiff’s political activity.”
According to the petition to the Supreme Court, Griess was “irked” by Bennie’s statements and “promised to delve into Bennie’s ‘recent string of activities’ – namely, Bennie’s comments about President Obama in the Lincoln Journal Star, Bennie’s alleged ‘lack of disclosure’ in a promotional CD-ROM, and his ‘gun slingin[g] ads,’ APP. B-5, none of which violated any financial (or other) regulation.”
Officials with the state agency declined to respond to WND’s request for comment, but the legitimacy of Bennie’s activities allegedly didn’t impact the state bureaucrats’ decision to attack.
“State regulators proceeded to use the department’s substantial regulatory powers to retaliate against Bennie for his political speech. A day after the Lincoln Journal Star quoted Bennie’s political views, Griess initiated a conference call with Bennie’s superiors at LPL [his employer] to discuss Bennie’s ‘recent strong of activities,'” the complaint explains.
There was a television ad in which Bennie promoted his business, a CD-ROM doing the same and his comments to the newspaper.
“Although these activities were lawful, Griess ‘suggested that [Bennie] may be acting as a gun dealer’ and questioned whether LPL approved Bennie’s activities,” the petition explains.
Two days later, Griess contacted the company again to apply pressure on the company to sanction Bennie.
At that time, “LPL’s regulatory attorney Kenneth Juster read the email and remarked to the company’s vice president Christian Zappala: ‘Nice – regulation through harassment.'”
The regulators continued, demanding of the company to know whether or not officials “had any policies or guidelines regarding Bennie’s communication of his political views to the public or press.”
Regulators later explained they were asking because they were interested in LPL’s ability as an employer to restrict the private speech of employees.
When Bennie asked the governor’s office to investigate what appeared to him to be improper retaliation, “Griess responded” that Bennie’s views “tend to be quite polarizing to say the least.”
And a public records request “revealed that the department’s regulators had targeted Bennie because of his political statements.”
But the district court ruled against him on a technical ground, deciding that such harassment and intimidation was not sufficient, in legal terminology, “to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his constitutional rights.”
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals simply adopted the lower court’s decision.
The case raises the issue of First Amendment free-speech rights and how they are addressed in courts.
The statement by Bennie in the newspaper that triggered the attack by regulators was: “I’m a freedom-loving American, and he’s a communist. I’m honest and he’s dishonest. He didn’t tell us all of what [he] was going to do. I believe he’s an evil man.”
The petition to the high court stated: “The column detailing Bennie’s political role in the local tea party did not implicate the departments’ regulatory authority. Yet the article irked Griess, who, on the very next day, promised to delve into Bennie’s … activities.”
It’s an issue on which the circuit courts across the U.S. disagree and important enough for the high court to resolve, the petition contends.
“Our First Amendment rights can be cancelled out if government can punish people for exercising those rights,” said PLF attorney Wen Fa. “That is what happened to Bob Bennie – he was the victim of a vendetta campaign by bureaucrats because they were offended by his political views. You don’t have to agree with his comments to grasp the importance of the principles he is fighting for in this case. If we value First Amendment freedoms, government cannot be permitted to penalize people for using those freedoms – and the courts at every level must go the extra mile to guard against such abuses of public-sector power.”
He continued: “Unfortunately, Bob Bennie’s free speech rights didn’t get the respect and protection they are due when he was before the appellate court. Instead of conducting its own rigorous, independent review of the case, the Eighth Circuit simply rubber-stamped the findings of the trial court. When First Amendment freedoms are at stake, no court can be allowed to rely on some other court’s work. We are asking the Supreme Court to take this case and affirm that, when government retaliation against free speech is alleged, every court must do its job, fully and vigorously, to protect victims and hold violators to account.”
In a statement released by his attorneys, Bennie said, “The right to free speech is an essential element of freedom in the United States.”
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