MIAMI (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a First Amendment case brought by a Florida man who previously won a landmark ruling from the justices on whether his floating home was a house, not a boat subject to easier government seizure under laws that govern ships and boats.
This time, the justices agreed to hear a case in which Fane Lozman sued after being charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest at a public meeting.
Lozman, 56, was never brought to trial on the charges — prosecutors dropped them after concluding there was no possibility of a conviction. Lozman then sued Riviera Beach, claiming his arrest at a 2006 city council meeting violated the First Amendment's free speech guarantee because it was in retaliation for opposing a marina redevelopment plan and accusing council members of corruption.
A jury sided with the city after a trial and an appeals court upheld that verdict. Lozman, however, took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing in part that U.S. appeals courts across the country are split on the issue of retaliatory arrest versus free speech.
"What makes America beautiful is our personal freedoms," Lozman said in an interview Monday. "And I'll be damned if I'm going to let anybody take away my First Amendment rights to free speech."
The Supreme Court will likely schedule oral argument in Lozman's latest case for late this winter or early spring. The case comes at a time of more frequent protests across the U.S. against the administration of President Donald Trump, over police race relations and divisive issues such as Confederate monuments.
The First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes government openness and transparency in Florida, said in a brief supporting Lozman that it's important for governments to have clear guidance from the Supreme Court on balancing probable cause for an arrest with free speech rights.
"The danger of being arrested in retaliation for engaging in protected speech threatens to chill the exercise of core First Amendment rights such as questioning or otherwise criticizing the government," the foundation's filing says. "The potential chilling effect is especially acute in smaller towns and cities across America."
In its court documents, Riviera Beach attorneys contend that the City Council did not order Lozman's arrest at the 2006 meeting and that city ordinances then in effect gave police officers sole power to make that decision. Therefore, they argued, the arrest was not retaliation for criticizing government.
"Police officers alone had discretion to decide whether to make an arrest, and could do so only upon independently determining that there was probable cause to do so," the city's attorneys said. "Lozman's arrest was caused not by the city's own policies, but rather by the independent decisions of a city employee."
The Supreme Court's 2013 ruling on Lozman's floating home, which was seized and destroyed by Rivera Beach, was seen by legal experts as an important precedent in maritime law for thousands of people who make their homes on the water as well as floating businesses such as casinos. Different laws apply to vessels and homes, with homeowners receiving more protection from seizure in Florida and other states.
Chief Justice John Roberts was quoted later as saying Lozman's floating home case was his favorite of that term.
Lozman, a former Marine Corps officer and wealthy financial trader, marveled Monday that he has managed to get the nation's highest court to consider two of his cases when the vast majority of appeals are turned away.
"It's a noble fight," he said. "It's an important time in our history. I'm proud to do my part to stand up for the First Amendment."
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