Who crossed what line? October 25, 2007
Rob Haneisen 508-626-3882 Framingham Tab
Framingham - When does insulting, opinionated speech become a crime?

That's the question being asked in Framingham this week after South Middlesex Op portunity Council (SMOC) filed a lawsuit against the town and several officials and individuals alleging they collectively created an environment of discriminat ion.

According to the lawsuit filed in federal court, the discrimination comes "Via u nlawful threats, intimidation and coercion designed to interfere with the provis ion of basic housing and social services to the disabled, Defendants have depriv ed this vulnerable population of their basic civil rights and threaten to contin ue to do so into the future unless stopped."

What's interesting is the lawsuit names basically a who's-who among social servi ce expansion opponents.  It goes beyond elected officials and the town as a whole.

For the elected officials it names Town Manager Julian Suso; selectmen Chairman Dennis Giombetti, Vice Chairman Jason Smith and member Ginger Esty; Planning Boa rd members Ann Welles, Sue Bernstein, Carol Spack and Andrea-Carr Evans; Human S ervices Coordinator Alexis Silver; and Town Meeting members Peter Adams, Cynthia Laurora, Steve Orr and Laurie Lee.

Adams is named in the lawsuit for starting his Web site for STEPPS (Stop Tax Exe mpt Private Property Sprawl) which, the suit says, was used by Adams and STEPPS members to spread malicious and defamatory lies about SMOC and its clients.

Orr is named because he used his own online e-mail listing board (frambors/sysla ng.net) to "disseminate his own and others' false, defamatory and inflammatory s tatements about SMOC and its disabled clientele."

Resident Harold Wolfe is named in part because he started the Web site www.smoci ngham.org (the lawsuit incorrectly gives the Web site a .com label).  He is accused of using the site as a means of "spreading false, malicious and defamat ory lies about SMOC and its disabled clientele" and selling signs that say "Stop SMOC.".

Resident Anthony Siciliano is named in the suit for comments he made about SMOC on frambors.  One particular comment is cited where he compares drug addict s to having less value than dead dogs.

The suit also reserves the right to sue unnamed members of the Framingham Police Department and/or other officials for allegedly leaking information about a Dep artment of Corrections investigation involving three SMOC employees.

If you want to read all 99 pages of the lawsuit, go to the MetroWest Daily News Web site or the Framingham Tab Web site where there are links that will open the document.

This lawsuit has been brewing for years.  The battle against SMOC began wit h Ginger Esty and others trying to get the downtown wet shelter closed and reach ed its peak with the two-year battle, starting in 2005, to open a new home for r ecovering drug addicts at 517 Winter St.

While the battle between SMOC and other social service agencies in town against neighborhood and town proponents has been at times vicious and at least antagoni stic I'm not sure if it was ever illegal.  The complaints by those being su ed here and those who support their positions that all they were doing is voicin g their Constitutionally protected free speech is a valid argument.

Since when is it illegal to make comments that offend?

The key component to this lawsuit which would seem next to impossible to prove i s that those who made all these defamatory and false comments made them knowing they were false as part of a coordinated effort to drive SMOC from Framingham.&n bsp; How do you prove that?

Is there a coordinated effort in town of residents, including some elected offic ials, who want what they see as reform with social service expansion?  Yes.   Is that illegal?  I don't see how.

As much as some people disagree with the position that Framingham must somehow s top and further regulate social service agencies — even going so far as to say t hat those who oppose social service agencies are hateful — I think most would ag ree that their opinions are protected speech.

I've written about what I think is callous, unfeeling and just wrong behavior wh en it comes to some opponents of social services.  But never would I say th at what they expressed was somehow illegal.

If what people wrote on frambors is subject to legal action, what about similar content published in newspapers as letters to the editor?

One has to look at SMOC's lawsuit as an extreme move that is ultimately hurtful to their position in town.  Perhaps the organization believed they were at a place of no return and that the relationship between SMOC and Framingham could get no worse?  How do you recover and rebuild relationships after a lawsui t such as this one?

Even those in Framingham who support SMOC and its mission are likely cringing at the filing because it's hard to imagine little good coming of it.

One has to think that SMOC was sick and tired of being the punching bag for thos e who blamed every town ill on social service agencies.  But when SMOC fire d back, was it overkill?

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