Bloomfield Township — Less than a month before the Aug. 4 primary election, a legal battle is raging between township officials and opponents over social media posts that has raised free-speech issues.

Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie and township Treasurer Brian Kepes sued two residents and the social media site NextDoor in Oakland County Circuit Court, claiming that posts against a special assessment for police and fire services used “misinformation” to defeat the 2.3-mill levy in last August’s election. 

An attorney for defendants Val Murray and Kathleen Norton-Shock says the May lawsuit is an unconstitutional attempt to silence them and other residents. 

“This is a gross abuse of power,” said Brian D. Wassom. “It’s asinine.” .

Wassom noted Murray, a Republican, is a candidate in the August primary for one of the township’s four trustee seats and has opposed many of the actions and proposals of the current township board, which includes Savoie and Kepes.

“The suit arises for the simple reason that the individual defendants successfully engaged in online politics,” Wasson wrote in a request to have the suit dismissed.

“The only ‘injuries’ the plaintiffs allege are that the individual defendants made political statements in social media — specifically, that they criticized plaintiffs’ performance as elected officials, campaigned against a ballot measure plaintiffs favored, and expressed their views on matters of public concern,” he said. “That is all.”           

Savoie said he and Kepes are suing as private residents, not on behalf of the township. Yet the township, its reputation, and funding for public safety millage have all been adversely impacted, Savoie insists. Voters approved a 1.2-mill public safety tax in March.

NextDoor, a privately owned California-based business, markets itself as the world’s largest social network for neighborhoods, with 11,000 members signed up just in Bloomfield Township.

“During the pandemic, (Murray) posted ‘Don’t expect to get anything from Bloomfield Township — they are completely closed down,’” said Savoie. “Nothing could be more false. We were working night and day trying to help residents — even helping them get their groceries.”

Savoie said Murray was responsible for negative posts that generated distrust of township officials and for “fabricating fear and panic” during the pandemic with “unauthorized and unsubstantiated medical advice to the public.”

Norton-Shock, a volunteer regional director for the township NextDoor site, had a duty to screen out many of the posts and remove Murray from the platform, according to the complaint.

Savoie said NextDoor’s policies specify postings must be “helpful, not hurtful” and postings attacking other NextDoor members are prohibited and political comments are “expected to be neutral in tone.”

The lawsuit alleges NextDoor permitted Murray “to insult and bully other members and to spread misinformation designed to defeat a ballot initiative that sought a special assessment district designed to increase funding to fill vacancies in the police and fire departments.”

The lawsuit alleges that NextDoor neglected to enforce its own policies, “thereby causing the loss of public service benefits” to the township.

“I wrote two letters to NextDoor and never got a reply,” said Savoie. “Our attorney wrote a third letter and still no response. Nothing but silence.

“We don’t like having to file a lawsuit but we don’t know what else we can do,” he said. “It’s not fair they are permitting people to post whatever they want. Lies. I hope to make this a class-action lawsuit.”

In response, NextDoor spokeswoman Kim Sampson said: “We do not comment on ongoing litigation” and invited The News to review the company’s community guidelines, which prohibit “racism, discrimination, and hate speech of any kind,” as well as public shaming and airing disputes. 

Wassom said Murray and Norton-Schock met Nextdoor.com user validation requirements that include providing proof of community residency and signing in with real names. 

Wassom said Nextdoor, like many social media  platforms, is designed to engage residents on matters of common interest in their community.

The complaint seeks unspecified monetary damages to be decided by the court and to be held in a trust for the township.

While a hearing on arguments is set for Aug. 5, candidates in the upcoming Aug. 4 primary — including Murray — are using the dispute for political fodder, including recently at a First Amendment rally outside the township public library.

Wassom said the complaint is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation suit — commonly referred to as SLAPP. The intention of such complaints is to intimidate and silence critics by forcing them to take on legal costs.

“Damages aren’t a goal here,” Wassom said. “This is a blatant attempt to intimidate these two women from speaking out. To shut them up.”

Wassom said it is a prime example of why Michigan needs anti-SLAPP laws to protect freedom of speech in matters of public concern.

“I think they thought these two women were going to be unable to fight them,” he said. “But this is going to fail and before it’s over, I expect they and their attorneys will have to pay my legal fees.”

Dan Devine, a former township treasurer who is challenging Savoie in next month’s Republican primary, said the lawsuit is part of an effort to shut residents out of township decisions, including restricting comment at public board meetings.

Devine and others object to not being able to attend township meetings, which are being held remotely via Zoom — as in many other communities — because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“You can go into a barber shop but you can’t physically attend a board meeting?” Devine said. “Something’s not right.”

Savoie maintains the virtual meeting arrangement is for everyone’s safety and to follow Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders limiting the size of public gatherings.

He said residents can email remarks to be read into the record right up to the time of trustees’ meetings.

The public safety millages aren’t the only issue generating controversy in Bloomfield Township. A separate dispute over water sewerage rates has found its way to the Michigan Court of Appeals after an Oakland Circuit judge ruled against the township.

The heated political environment has attracted a field of 17 candidates for seven township seats: supervisor, treasurer, clerk and four trustee positions. Devine said for the first time he can recall, there are even Democrats running for local office in the traditional Republican stronghold.

“There is a large field but its an odd group,” said Savoie. “We have a trustee, a previously declared Republican, who is now a Democrat. We have had candidates who have filed to run as both a Democrat and a Republican, which of course you can’t do. We had more than one person who filed to run for more than one position who had to be told to pick one or be removed from the ballot entirely.

“It’s made us a laughingstock in election circles.”

Savoie wasn’t exaggerating about the pre-ballot shuffle. Even his harshest critics admit there was a lot of “jockeying” because no one knew who filed for what office until April 21, a few days before the withdrawal deadline.

Among them: Jeff Axt, who ran for trustee as a Republican in 2016. He had filed to run this year for trustee as a Republican, and for supervisor and treasurer as a Democrat, only to withdraw entirely.

Another candidate, Linda Ulrey, filed to run for trustee initially as a Republican and a Democrat, ultimately choosing to stay in the race as a Democrat.

Devine also participated in the ballot jockeying.

“I filed as Republican for supervisor and clerk and withdrew as clerk when I saw the field,” he said.

David Thomas tried to file petitions to run as a Republican for supervisor but missed by one signature. He then filed for clerk as a Republican against Malissa Bosardet, who ran for state House as Republican in 2018, and Tom Smyly a Republican candidate who is a township police officer.

The winner of the GOP primary will face former Bloomfield Hills school board president Martin Brook, a Democrat, in the November election.

And topping them all late last month, Democrat Scott Nadeau endorsed Dani Walsh, his opponent in the Democratic primary for supervisor.

In a NextDoor post, Nadeau wrote: “Please do NOT VOTE for me. Instead, please vote for Dani Walsh.”

Savoie acknowledges the township’s politics are far from normal.

“There is a small contingent, about 60 people, who are causing turmoil here,” he said. “I wasn’t planning for running for reelection, but when I heard the name of someone who was running for the office I decided to go for another term. It did not make my wife happy.”

Wassom’s motion for dismissal, sent to Judge Daniel O’Brien for consideration, argues that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech is so deeply ingrained in the U.S. legal system that “the law protects even misinformed or mistaken speech.”

“It’s absurd to believe you can sue another person simply because you disagree with their opinion or would contest their facts,” Wassom said. “Yet that’s exactly what these elected Bloomfield Township officials are doing in this suit.”

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

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