The Key Biscayne Community Foundation filed a defamation lawsuit late Monday against Tony Campaigne, a pay-for-play columnist who it says damaged the nonprofit’s reputation with false claims of graft. The columns are written as a conversation between Campaigne and a fictional parrot he calls “Pepe.”
The complaint seeks unspecified damages for two columns, which were printed in the weekly Islander News as paid advertisements, as well as a letter e-mailed to members of the Village Council.
The litigation is the latest chapter in an expanding battle against what the charity has described as a “smear campaign” by a small group of critics. Last month, the Foundation severed its contract with the Village to administer more than a dozen popular programs.
On Friday, Key Biscayne Mayor Mike Davey told the Anti-Social radio program that he believed the Foundation had been defamed and hoped that the group would resume its role with the Village. Some members of the Village Council have questioned its role in government, although it is common for municipalities to have service contracts with community foundations.
Campaigne’s attorney, David Winker, called the lawsuit a “press release” without merit and an attempt to chill speech, saying it violates a Florida law that “prohibits these types of strategic lawsuits against public participation.” He said he will seek attorneys fees from the Foundation.
The suit says a July 1 ad falsely stated that the Foundation used taxpayer funds for a retirement party for former Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press. The complaint also alleges that a July 15 ad falsely implied that the Foundation was using tax dollars for its charitable work in Liberty City. The Foundation, working with Press, has been conducting youth-focused community programs in Liberty City since 2004.
The lawsuit described the latter column as a racist “dog-whistle,” adding that Campaigne’s writing style of placing a misappropriation claim in the words of his fictional parrot should not be allowed to let him “avoid personal responsibility for his falsehoods.”
It is not known how much Campaigne pays the Islander News for his half-page advertisements, which have often been critical of the police department. Campaigne described his paid columns, which have been running occasionally since May, as a “humorous satirical view of the Key.”
Campaigne said Islander News publisher Justo Rey told him the newspaper would not be printing any future columns. Rey, citing the pending litigation, declined to comment. The paper is not named in the suit.
The lawsuit contends that Campaigne acted with “reckless disregard,” which is a reference to a legal standard that applies to some kinds of defamation claims against public figures. Under that standard, if a person or entity is deemed to be a public figure, the standard requires a higher burden of proof for the plaintiff.
“The First Amendment does not provide a safe haven for people who maliciously publish false and defamatory statements for the purpose of causing harm to others,” said Foundation attorney Eugene Stearns.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.