Cerabino: Riviera Beach gadfly reigns Supreme in free-speech message

For all you gadflies out there, all you fine citizens who speak up at public meetings, who use your allotted time during public comments to give your local elected officials a piece of your mind, you’ve got a new standard-bearer.

His name is Fane Lozman. Lozman fought a long, losing battle with the city of Riviera Beach to keep his floating home at the municipally owned marina.

In the course of that battle, Lozman showed up to speak at a November 2006 City Council meeting during the “public comments” section.

Theoretically, he had two minutes to talk. He was one of 20 people who had lined up to speak. And the subjects were on a wide variety of topics.

The meeting’s minutes show that resident Gregg Moree used his time to talk about a book called “Conchtown USA.” Dennis Widlansky complained about the inconsistencies in the fines levied by city code enforcement. And Milton Brown called on men to mentor teens and younger men.

It’s not clear what Lozman was going to say for the duration of his two-minute time slot because he lasted only about 15 seconds up there.

“The mayor is probably aware that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has arrested the second corrupt local politician,” Lozman began. “This time it was former Palm Beach County Commissioner Tony Masilotti.”

That’s when he got interrupted by then-Councilwoman Liz Wade.

“Fane Lozman, you have the right to say what you want to say publicly, but you will not stand up and go through that kind of … ” Wade interjected.

“Yes, I will,” Lozman interrupted.

He tried to keep going, while a city police officer was telling him to step away from the microphone.

“I’m not finished,” Lozman said.

The officer kept trying to get him to stop.

“I’m not walking outside,” Lozman told the officer.

“Then carry him out,” Wade ordered.

And that’s when Lozman, a former Marine Corps officer and self-described millionaire, was put in handcuffs and led out of the chamber.

Wade later explained her actions to The Palm Beach Post.

“If you’re calling the people around me crooks, then you’re not far from calling me one,” she said.

Lozman was booked on two charges: disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence. The State Attorney’s Office refused to prosecute.

That 12-year-old incident got aired out this week in the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s not all that surprising that Lozman would take legal matters that far. After all, this is the second time he has dragged the city of Riviera Beach to the nation’s highest court.

He won the first time five years ago, with the high court ruling that the city illegally used antiquated maritime law to seize and destroy Lozman’s floating home at the marina.

And he just might win again.

Chief Justice John Roberts used the word “chilling” to describe the video showing Lozman being led away in handcuffs for the comments he had made at the Riviera Beach meeting.

But a Palm Beach County jury ruled three years ago that the city didn’t violate Lozman’s free-speech rights by arresting him at that meeting. And that the officer who arrested him at the meeting had probable cause to arrest him for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence, even if those charges were never filed.

The city, contending that Lozman violated decorum on that day, pointed out that he has aired his grievances 296 other times at City Council meetings, which is a lot of free speech.

Even so, First Amendment groups consider Lozman’s case against Riviera Beach an important one.

“This case is about much more than a retaliatory arrest and probable cause. At its heart, it is about twin fundamental First Amendment rights,” wrote the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, which filed an amicus brief in the case on Lozman’s side. “The first is the right of all citizens to speak out as citizen-critics of government officials and to freely engage in speech about matters of public concern …

“The second is the right of all citizens to petition the government for a redress of grievances with neither fear nor trepidation of retaliation or retribution for expressing their viewpoints, regardless of how disagreeable or disturbing those stances may be to government officials.”

It has been an expensive lesson for Riviera Beach to learn and free one for other local governments to heed.

All because of Fane Lozman, king of the gadflies.

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