DETROIT -- After eight years of a court struggle, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that a citizen has the right to express an opinion about a police officer’s ability to perform his duties without fearing retaliation. The citizen, Richard Mach, was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
“Whenever there is abuse by government officials, citizens should be encouraged to report it,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director. “This decision assures victims of police misconduct that they may report bad cops without fear of being penalized for expressing their views.”
In 1995, psychologist Richard Mach drove down a Flint street when he came upon an accident scene. Seeing the blocked lanes, Dr. Mach drove up next to a police car to ask the officer for instructions on how to proceed through the area.
According to Dr. Mach, Flint Police Officer Daniel Allen stormed out of the patrol car and began angrily shouting in an aggressive manner. Officer Allen then issued Mach a ticket for ignoring a police barricade and threatened to arrest him if he did not leave in three seconds.
Dr. Mach was shaken by the intimidating and threatening manner in which he was treated. He wrote a letter to the police chief and sent copies to other officials about the encounter. He stated in the letter that, as a psychologist, he believed Officer Allen was a danger both to the community at large and to himself. He further said that Officer Allen should be taken off the street until a counselor found him fit to return to duty.
Officer Allen was never disciplined by the Flint Police Department for the incident, but filed a lawsuit against Dr. Mach for slander which the Genesee County Circuit Court dismissed. Officer Allen appealed.
In an opinion issued April 27, a unanimous 3-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals held that Dr. Mach could not be liable for expressing his personal impression of Officer Allen: “[A] review of defendant’s statements indicates that defendant expressed opinions about plaintiff, and that his comments amounted to subjective assertions” that cannot serve as a basis for a slander lawsuit.
"I believe that the ultimate purpose of this lawsuit was to intimidate me and other citizens from reporting police misconduct," said Dr. Mach. "Despite the stress and expense of this lawsuit, I refused to succumb to their transparent attempt to threaten my First Amendment rights to dissent. I urge all citizens in like circumstances to assert their right to freely speak their minds about any perceived governmental abuse."
"Dr. Mach had to fight for over eight years to be free of this lawsuit,” said Daniel Quick, the ACLU volunteer attorney who handled the appeal. “While his constitutional rights to free speech have been vindicated, people should not have to go through this emotionally painful and financially burdensome experience. The Michigan Legislature should act to help protect Michigan citizens from these sorts of onerous lawsuits."
The ACLU has been advocating for state legislation to deter what is known as “SLAPP suits” or “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” The laws provide for expedited dismissal of SLAPP suits when the purpose of the suit is to stifle free speech and make the plaintiff liable for the defendant’s attorneys fees in those cases. Several states already have Anti-SLAPP laws on the books.