Though he described disputed emails as “disgusting,” a federal judge has dismissed part of a lawsuit in which the National Rifle Association’s Florida lobbyist alleged she received harassing and threatening emails after the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle dismissed NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer’s claims against California attorney Lawrence Sorensen, who sent two emails to Hammer that included photos showing injuries from gunshot wounds. Hammer filed a lawsuit in July against Sorensen and three other unrelated men because of emails she received — with Hinkle’s dismissal limited to Sorensen.
In the ruling, Hinkle wrote that Sorensen sending the emails “unsolicited to anyone, even a public figure who advocates gun rights, was inappropriate, indeed disgusting.” But the judge said Sorensen did not threaten Hammer and that the emails are protected by the First Amendment.
“Tolerating incivility, at least to some extent, is a price a nation pays for freedom,” Hinkle wrote in the four-page order dated Saturday and made public Monday. “There is no clear line between incivility, on the one hand, and effective advocacy, on the other. Turning loose a legislature, judge, or jury to ferret out incivility would deter and even sometimes punish the robust public discourse that is essential to freedom — the public discourse whose protection is the main object of the First Amendment.”
Hammer, a former national president of the NRA, filed the lawsuit seeking damages from Sorensen, Connecticut resident Christopher Risica and two men, Howard Weiss and Patrick Sullivan, whose places of residence were unknown. The lawsuit alleged that the men sent harassing and threatening emails, with at least some of the emails using vile language.
The emails and lawsuit came after a gunman used a semi-automatic weapon to kill 17 people in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, helping fuel a debate about gun issues.
Sorensen, who works as an arbitrator and mediator, fought the lawsuit and in a September filing argued that the photos “truthfully depict injuries from gunshots.” He also likened the emails to anti-war protests and pointed to the use of photos to inform the public and protest violence dating back to the Civil War.
“In this form of speech, there is nothing false,” Sorensen’s attorney wrote in the filing. “Instead, the photographs are intended to inject real information into a national debate. In this case, there is an ongoing public debate pertaining to the wisdom of regulating such high powered weapons. Ms. Hammer has been a leading advocate on these issues for her client, the NRA. Mr. Sorensen’s message to her was classic protest speech to a public figure with huge influence in the national debate over gun rights. Therefore, the First Amendment shields him from liability for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
But in a document filed last month, Hammer’s attorneys wrote that dismissing the case would “send the wrong message at a time when everyone needs to be reminded that there are limits to how people can treat those with whom they disagree.”
“Not everything one says or does behind the veil of a computer or cell phone screen is automatically shielded by the First Amendment,” Hammer’s attorneys wrote. “People must be held accountable when they use the internet to engage in conduct — not speech — that a civilized society should never tolerate and the First Amendment does not protect.”
But Hinkle disagreed with that contention about the First Amendment.
“The photographs were graphic, partly because they apparently depicted actual injuries,” the judge wrote. “But images as graphic, or nearly so, can be seen in movies and video games, on cable if not also network television, and in medical literature. The photographs were germane to the policy debate that Ms. Hammer regularly participated in and Mr. Sorensen apparently sought to join. Sending these photographs, at least in these circumstances, was not tortious. And treating them as tortious would violate the First Amendment.”
Hammer said in an email Monday that “while I understand that the First Amendment recognizes certain rights with respect to speech, I do not believe those rights extend to allowing people to use speech to threaten, intimidate or harass someone simply because you disagree with their views.”
“Unsolicited emails like those sent by Mr. Sorensen, which included graphic images of dead or injured bodies are, as Judge Hinkle stated in his order, ‘disgusting,’ and ‘should not be sent in a civilized society.’ Although we respect the court’s order, we obviously disagree with the ultimate findings, and will evaluate our options,” she said.