On The Front Lines
After Fighting for Freedom Abroad, Decorated Gulf War Veteran Is Punished for Exercising His Own Right to Political Free Speech at Home
The Florida Bar v. Christopher W. Crowley
TALLAHASSEE, Fl. — The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of a decorated Gulf War veteran who, after fighting for freedom abroad, was punished for exercising his right to political free speech in his home state of Florida.
Chris Crowley, an attorney and former candidate for state prosecutor, was charged by the Florida State Bar with defamation of another candidate for legal office after raising concerns about his political opponent during the electoral campaign. Warning that free debate about public affairs, which is the essence of self-government, is at the heart of the First Amendment’s protections, The Rutherford Institute has asked the judge to prevent the State Bar from chilling speech critical of public officials, thereby leaving voters ignorant of potentially relevant concerns.
“No matter what their political persuasion might be, every American has a First Amendment right to criticize government programs or policies with which they might disagree,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Nowhere in the First Amendment does it permit the government to limit speech in order to avoid causing offense or hurting someone’s feelings, protect government officials from criticism, penalize hateful ideas, combat prejudice and intolerance, and the like.”
Attorney Chris Crowley, a decorated Gulf War veteran who served in Iraq and Kuwait and was a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve for twenty years, was a 2018 candidate for Florida’s 20th Judicial State Attorney position, which is the head prosecutor over several counties. Crowley ran against the Chief Assistant State Attorney in the Republican primary. During the electoral campaign, Crowley denounced his opponent as “corrupt” and “swampy,” raised concerns about her track record as a prosecutor, her familial connections to a suspected anti-Israel, anti-Semitic group, and what role she may have played in having Crowley investigated and arrested over a small campaign donation from a raffle. Although there is no indication that Crowley recklessly disregarded a high awareness of any probable falsity of those statements, the Florida State Bar, which regulates attorney conduct, brought a disciplinary action against him because the Bar’s rules prohibit attorneys from making a statement with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge, public legal officer, or candidate for election to judicial or legal office. The judge hearing the case, who later recused herself, found Crowley in violation of the ethics rules and recommended to the Florida Supreme Court that Crowley be found guilty, claiming that he did not have an objectively reasonable basis for making his claims.
In joining the case, and based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Counterman v. Colorado, The Rutherford Institute has filed a Motion to Reconsider, arguing that the previous judge’s analysis violated First Amendment protections of free speech—which are heightened in an election context—by applying an unconstitutional standard which would enable claims through the State Bar to be weaponized to chill speech critical of public officials. In Counterman, the U.S. Supreme Court reined in the government’s power to punish speech it deems distasteful or annoying.
Affiliate attorney Phares Heindl is co-counsel of record in the case.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated, and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.