Payout to cover ANSWER’s legal fees in four-year handbill brouhaha

money.jpgThe A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition — known also as Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, if you’re not into the whole acronym thing — is nothing if not ambitious. In addition to marching, waving signs, and jailing racist killer cops, the lefty protest group is also going to hit up San Francisco taxpayers. But not for a rally: for $90,000, some four years after the city’s Department of Public Works had the temerity to ask ANSWER for $6,000.

How does a $6,000 bill become a $90,000 windfall, even in a recession? Let’s ask ANSWER (or rather let’s just look at court documents).

In 2006, ANSWER filed suit against the city’s Department of Public Works, alleging that DPW had no right to bill the group for cost recovery for cleaning up bills, placards and other postings plastered onto city property, and that the public works code under which ANSWER was fined is in fact a violation of the First Amendment.

A Superior Court judge pish-poshed ANSWER’s antics and ruled in favor of the city, but ANSWER was not to be stopped: they appealed the ruling to the state Circuit Court of Appeals. That court ruled in ANSWER’s favor, and also ruled that ANSWER could recover legal fees from their nemesis… the people of the City and County of San Francisco.

Perhaps weary of haggling, wrangling and otherwise occupying his office’s time over four-year old handbills, City Attorney Dennis Herrera chose not to go any further and relented, offering ANSWER $90,000 if they would only go away.

This settlement is scheduled to be finalized as early as today, when the Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee will ponder this and other pressing matters at its 10 a.m. meeting.

The Appeal understands very much how expensive lawyers can be, and would, if we could, recover all sorts of stuff from anyone. But taxpayer-funded free speech is something of a new one. Lesson learned, don’t litigate with lefties.

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  • jps3

    Maybe the City should stop violating 1st amendment rights. That would be one way to avoid forking over $90k. $90k is not just nuisance value for a case like this. $90k means that the City was worried that the case had merit, and that it would lose if it continued to defend the case.

    The title of your piece could as easily have been: “The decision of the Department of Public Works to violate a group’s 1st amendment rights costs the taxpayers 90k.” But I suppose that wouldn’t have fit in with your clever point that “it’s so ironic that a left-wing group would fight against the people of san francisco; lefties are such hypocrites!”

  • jps3

    Maybe the City should stop violating 1st amendment rights. That would be one way to avoid forking over $90k. $90k is not just nuisance value for a case like this. $90k means that the City was worried that the case had merit, and that it would lose if it continued to defend the case.

    The title of your piece could as easily have been: “The decision of the Department of Public Works to violate a group’s 1st amendment rights costs the taxpayers 90k.” But I suppose that wouldn’t have fit in with your clever point that “it’s so ironic that a left-wing group would fight against the people of san francisco; lefties are such hypocrites!”

  • jps3

    p.s.–only the government can violate the first amendment. thus, everyone that files a lawsuit based on a violation of 1st amendment rights is filing suit against “the people.”

  • jps3

    p.s.–only the government can violate the first amendment. thus, everyone that files a lawsuit based on a violation of 1st amendment rights is filing suit against “the people.”

  • rgm

    Is the tone of this article supposed to be a joke?

  • rgm

    Is the tone of this article supposed to be a joke?

  • Wil

    Is the appeals court decision precedent-setting? Seems like a bad thing if we now have a precedent on the books (and/or confusion in the courts) that defacing city property is “free speech” that taxpayers should have to pay to clean up.

    I’ll bet $90k is a lot cheaper than litigating this further, but are the city’s ongoing cleanup costs for political flyers, concert posters, graffiti taggers, etc. cheaper? Probably not.

  • Wil

    Is the appeals court decision precedent-setting? Seems like a bad thing if we now have a precedent on the books (and/or confusion in the courts) that defacing city property is “free speech” that taxpayers should have to pay to clean up.

    I’ll bet $90k is a lot cheaper than litigating this further, but are the city’s ongoing cleanup costs for political flyers, concert posters, graffiti taggers, etc. cheaper? Probably not.

  • benrosenfeld

    I was one of the lawyers who initiated these suits. Mr. Roberts did not bother to make any inquiries of the legal team (or ANSWER, to my knowledge) and gets his facts considerably wrong. First, ANSWER was facing over $36,000 in fines and penalties even before the appeal was filed, not $6,000 (which would still be a exorbitant for a non-profit political group). Second, SF’s signposting ordinance regulates but does not prohibit sign posting. The DPW fined ANSWER $450 per piece of paper, plus penalties, for such technical violations as using 11×17 instead of 11×8.5″ paper. Thus, there is no evidence that the DPW had to spend any extra money to abate any postering. Third, there was no evidence that ANSWER posted any flier. Rather, ANSWER made fliers available for pickup and download (on the web, in cafes, at its office, etc), and volunteers put them up. Evidence was introduced that ANSWER advised its volunteers to comply with the City’s signposting ordinance. Fourth, the lawsuit was predominantly about the fact that the DPW relied (both unconstitutionally, and in violation of the ordinance itself) on a “rebuttable presumption” that the mere existence of ANSWER’s name on a flier made it liable. There was nothing ANSWER could say or do to defend itself. Under such an approach, anyone could get anyone else in trouble by posting a flier with his/her name on it. (Gavin Newsom for Lt. Governor??). ANSWER argued that this effectively put it out of the free expression business. Fifth, the DPW went after numerous groups and individuals in the same manner. Sixth, The DPW deputized and paid an anti-blight crusader to elevate his personal campaign to a public crusade. Seventh, the DPW exceeded the law with respect to the amount of the fines and penalties. Eighth, we made every effort to resolve this case against the City without litigation. I even went so far as to re-draft the ordinance and shop it around City Hall. Does Mr. Roberts think under these circumstances we should have volunteered our hundreds of hours of legal time? As a lawyer, I find that a little fact checking goes a long way. I’ve heard the same principle applies to journalism.

  • benrosenfeld

    I was one of the lawyers who initiated these suits. Mr. Roberts did not bother to make any inquiries of the legal team (or ANSWER, to my knowledge) and gets his facts considerably wrong. First, ANSWER was facing over $36,000 in fines and penalties even before the appeal was filed, not $6,000 (which would still be a exorbitant for a non-profit political group). Second, SF’s signposting ordinance regulates but does not prohibit sign posting. The DPW fined ANSWER $450 per piece of paper, plus penalties, for such technical violations as using 11×17 instead of 11×8.5″ paper. Thus, there is no evidence that the DPW had to spend any extra money to abate any postering. Third, there was no evidence that ANSWER posted any flier. Rather, ANSWER made fliers available for pickup and download (on the web, in cafes, at its office, etc), and volunteers put them up. Evidence was introduced that ANSWER advised its volunteers to comply with the City’s signposting ordinance. Fourth, the lawsuit was predominantly about the fact that the DPW relied (both unconstitutionally, and in violation of the ordinance itself) on a “rebuttable presumption” that the mere existence of ANSWER’s name on a flier made it liable. There was nothing ANSWER could say or do to defend itself. Under such an approach, anyone could get anyone else in trouble by posting a flier with his/her name on it. (Gavin Newsom for Lt. Governor??). ANSWER argued that this effectively put it out of the free expression business. Fifth, the DPW went after numerous groups and individuals in the same manner. Sixth, The DPW deputized and paid an anti-blight crusader to elevate his personal campaign to a public crusade. Seventh, the DPW exceeded the law with respect to the amount of the fines and penalties. Eighth, we made every effort to resolve this case against the City without litigation. I even went so far as to re-draft the ordinance and shop it around City Hall. Does Mr. Roberts think under these circumstances we should have volunteered our hundreds of hours of legal time? As a lawyer, I find that a little fact checking goes a long way. I’ve heard the same principle applies to journalism.