This past Sunday in Miami Lakes, 17-year-old photojournalist Daniel Gonzalez III attended a protest against police brutality and systemic racism.
Gonzalez says he wanted to turn his camera on the counter-protesters, so he began taking photos of people in a Cubans4Trump caravan driving past the Black Lives Matter protest on 154th Street. The drivers, who were wearing MAGA hats, carrying American flags, and displaying pro-Trump bumper stickers, circled the crowd, honking their horns.
"People are photographing protesters to charge them with vandalism or property destruction. That's really unfair and really scummy," Gonzalez tells New Times. "But the counter-protesters never get posted online, so I thought, 'Why not?'"
Before he went to bed that night, Gonzalez posted several of his photos to Twitter, labeling the caravan participants the #RacistsofMiamiLakes.
"I wrote that because they're actively going against a Black Lives Matter protest. If you don't agree that Black lives matter, then you're a racist," he says.
The Twitter thread quickly gathered several thousand likes. But by the time Gonzalez woke up on Monday, he had received an email from Miami Lakes attorney Douglas Jeffrey threatening to sue him for defamation and his parents for "vicarious liability" and "negligent supervision."
Imagine suing a 17 year old high school student ????. I photographed some Trump supporters I didn’t know that were counter protesting a #BLM protest in Miami Lakes and called them racist. Their lawyers told me that they’re not. I guess I’ll take their word for it. Sorry. pic.twitter.com/QxpF2f4znx— Daniel Gonzalez III (@TheThirdDanielG) June 29, 2020
Gonzalez deleted the tweets. But after taking down the Twitter thread, he received messages and comments from a number of lawyers specializing in First Amendment rights who said Jeffrey's letter was meritless. Several attorneys promised to help him find pro bono representation if Jeffrey followed through on his threat to file a lawsuit.
One of those attorneys is Kenneth White, a prominent defense lawyer in Los Angeles who has practiced First Amendment law for 20 years. White tells New Times that Jeffrey's letter was foolish, and there are no legal grounds for what Jeffrey alleges.
"It's a very foolish, buffoonish threat. Calling someone a racist based on a counter-protesting is an opinion. It only counts as defamation if it is a provably false statement of fact," says White, whose Twitter account, Popehat, is nearing a quarter-million followers.
According to Florida statutes, a defendant is guilty of defamation if they publish statements about someone that can harm that person's reputation and can be proven false.
The question of whether calling someone a racist counts as defamation has come up in recent years, but a number of legal opinions have found that the term "racist" is an opinion and therefore protected by the First Amendment.
"If he posted something saying that these people were yelling racial epithets when they weren't, that could be something, but that's not the case [here]," White says.
White also points out that the last line of Jeffrey's letter, the one that admonishes Gonzalez in all-caps to "GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY," could be construed as bullying.
"'Govern yourself accordingly' is an in-joke among First Amendment lawyers," White says. "It's a stupid slogan used by people who have no idea what they're talking about to sound threatening. It basically means, 'Watch out, I'm a badass,' and it's a reliable hallmark of a bogus threat letter."
Jeffrey, a foreclosure attorney who says he practices all manner of law, tells New Times he asked Gonzalez to desist because his statements could harm his clients' reputations. He says the teen did not know his clients and that his clients are not racists.
"'Racist' is a bad word," Jeffrey says. "You can't just call someone something and say it's your opinion and have it protected."
One of Jeffrey's clients is Julio Martinez, who served as mayor of Hialeah in the early 1990s. Reached by New Times, Martinez declined to comment, referring questions to Jeffrey.
Yesterday afternoon, however, Martinez tweeted that he "asked a young man who admitted that he doesn't know me to stop calling me a racist... I am not a RACIST."
I haven't seen so much fowl language on Facebook ever, specially from ladies.— Julio Martinez (@SgtJJMartinez) June 30, 2020
I just asked a young man who admitted that he doesn't know me to stop calling me a racist.
He removed the post and I thought that was enough.
Thank God I don't know any of you.I am not a RACIST.
Jeffrey says there is "plenty of case law" to support the defamation claim and that the legal merit of his cease-and-desist letter is "crystal clear." He declined to go into detail about the legal merit of his letter or to provide examples of case law that bolster his point.
He says he and his clients are evaluating their legal options regarding Gonzalez.
"The goal is to move forward and to see if he will discontinue what he's been doing," Jeffrey says.
Asked what he and his clients want Gonzalez to stop doing, beyond taking down the thread, Jeffrey would not say.
Gonzalez is planning his own next steps.
He wants to go to other counter-BLM protests and continue photographing those individuals — albeit with a less-incendiary hashtag.
"It's kinda funny cause they started the Streisand effect," Gonzalez says. "Nobody cared about it until they threatened to sue me."
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