|SMOC critics say suit won't deter them||Friday, October 26, 2007|
|D. Craig MacCormack 508-626-4429||Metrowest Daily News|
FRAMINGHAM - The man who oversees comments by more than 1,000 people on a townwide discussio n group about local government said yesterday he sees a federal lawsuit filed th is week by SMOC as an effort "to shut people up."
Steve Orr, who moderates the discussion on Framingham Neighbors, said he expects more thought-provoking discussion on the privately run e-mail discussion forum, which is open to the public. He questioned South Middlesex Opportunity Co uncil's motives by including some frequent posters on its defendant list in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday.
The social service agency alleges "a coordinated effort" by town administrators, three selectmen, four Planning Board members, several Town Meeting members and two other residents to rid the town of its disabled population.
The 99-page complaint, which also includes more than 90 exhibits, alleges violat ions of the Fair Housing Act, federal Rehabilitation Act, Americans With Disabil ities Act and Civil Rights Act.
The suit asks the court to award SMOC "punitive and exemplary" damages in an amo unt chosen by the jury; enter a permanent injunction to require Framingham to co mply with all federal and state laws; take supervisory jurisdiction over Framing ham's actions to ensure compliance with the law; enter a permanent injunction re quiring Framingham to issue a permanent occupancy permit for Sage House, a SMOC home for former addicts and their families; enter a permanent injunction orderin g all required permits for Larry's Place, a proposed home for disabled homeless veterans; and attorneys fees.
"All they're trying to do is shut people up," said Orr. "They're not trying to s olve any real issues. I think this is the best thing that could happen to the to wn.
"This is is going to be an excellent stimulant to public discussion," said Orr, whose Framingham Neighbors, or Frambors, is online at frambors.syslang.net.
Howard Cooper, a lawyer from the firm Todd and Weld, which is representing SMOC, disagrees with Orr's assertion that the lawsuit is intended to end public discu ssion about the agency and its clients.
"SMOC filed this lawsuit quite reluctantly," said Cooper. "They are much more in terested in providing services to their clients than in bringing litigation. Wit h that said, they will pursue this case through to its conclusion."
He noted that the case cannot be considered a strategic lawsuit against public p articipation, or SLAPP suit, which are filed to intimidate opponents and hit the m with a heavy legal bill, because it was filed in federal court.
The anti-SLAPP legislation only covers cases in state court, said Cooper.
Even so, Lawrence Friedman, a professor of constitutional law at the New England School of Law, called it "a mystery" why the comments of Anthony Siciliano were enough to have him included in SMOC's action.
Friedman said Siciliano and Harold Wolfe, a resident who created a Web site rail ing against SMOC, have no official capacity in town and thus are not part of the decision-making process.
Intent by town officials in the statements and decisions they make is key, thoug h, said Friedman.
Comments among Frambors posters since word of SMOC's lawsuit began to spread hav e been mixed about the effect of the litigation on members' future posts.
"Everyone needs to be careful in what they say for it can all be used against yo u," wrote Precinct 16 Town Meeting chairman William LaBarge. "If you already sai d it, then it can and will be used against you.
"I still stand by what I have been saying on public record, in Frambors, and in other venues. I will not hold back in saying my piece, for better or for worse," he wrote.
Heidi Foubare urged posters to "say what you believe and say it loud. Don't shut up."
Linda Dunbrack, who moderates the discussion on Frambors to make sure it stays f ocused on town government, seemed to issue a warning to subscribers about future postings.
"I suggest you clearly label controversial statements as your opinion, check you r facts, and pay attention to the list rules for civility and the working defini tion for libel," she wrote. "If you wish to 'play it safe,' you can choose not t o post at all."
Peter Adams, a spokesman for Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl and one of the defendants in the case, doesn't think much will change on Frambors as a resu lt of SMOC's lawsuit.
"Some people might think twice, but you're not supposed to say things that are u ncivilized anyway," he said. "As far as I know, everything I've said is true and I see no reason to change my approach (to what I decide to post)."
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