Baldwin Park officials lose battle for restraining orders against critics

Just over a year ago, Baldwin Park Mayor Manuel Lozano filed for a restraining order against one of his most vocal critics.

Lozano lost the case but that didn't stop him and two council members from taking the same legal action two weeks ago against another gadfly.

What they didn't anticipate was the attorney they'd face in court: Paul Cook, the same critic who earlier beat Lozano in court.

"After being humiliated in the media and the courts, you would think he would have learned his lesson," Cook said.

The court case is just the latest example of actions that legal experts say appear to be driven by a desire to silence outspoken and annoying critics.

In 2012, the Central Basin Municipal Water District, based in Commerce, hired a law firm to file a libel suit against the unnamed authors of critical emails — even though experts say that it's well-known that governments cannot be defamed by critics or whistleblowers.

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor familiar with the Baldwin Park cases, said such moves can send a chilling message to anyone who wants to express their disapproval — however outrageous, as long as they are not threatening — of their elected officials at political or public events. These lawsuits also tend to lose in court because of a high bar before criticism of politicians crosses a legal line.

"When these kinds of restraining orders are entered against government officials' critics, based simply by showing that this person has said something hostile and has allegedly followed them, that is bad for democracy," Volokh said.

More than a year ago, Lozano filed for a restraining order against Cook, saying he felt he was being harassed and was concerned for his safety. The judge denied the application on the grounds of free speech. He also ruled that there was no credible threat.

Late last month, Baldwin Park Councilman Ricardo Pacheco obtained a restraining order against Greg S. Tuttle, a business owner and activist. Cook decided to represent Tuttle. He said that after he filed a motion to reopen the restraining order, Lozano and Mayor Pro Tem Monica Garcia filed requests March 3 for restraining orders against Tuttle. All three council members accused Tuttle of harassing and stalking them, and being hostile. In Garcia's declaration in support of a restraining order, she said that Tuttle called her inappropriate names, including "honey" and "political prostitute."

Garcia said Tuttle also slammed her on a popular online news and community forum.

"Those blogs state that the commenter has 'staked out' my home and claims to have knowledge that I have sex with my dog and person I used to date, and states I open my legs," she wrote in her declaration.

Tuttle said he voiced his opinions at the council meetings, not online. But he said that he did call Garcia "honey" whenever "she does something stupid," and that he called her a "political prostitute" because she was receiving money from the developers she supported.

Lozano said in his declaration that he saw Tuttle driving his truck past his home several times in October and November while he, Garcia and Pacheco were running for reelection. Lozano said Tuttle's truck carried a political sign for a rival candidate.

"I regarded these 'drive-bys' as a form of intimidation," the mayor wrote.

In addition to their complaints, the three elected officials said Tuttle followed them to Santa Barbara where they were attending the Independent Cities Assn. conference at Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort in January.

Tuttle, who rebuilds and sells engines, said he was in Santa Barbara on business. Volokh said that even if Tuttle was there to scrutinize the council members' activities, that's protected under free-speech rights.

Jimmy Gutierrez, who represented all three council members, said Tuttle overstepped his bounds by following the council members in Santa Barbara without a purpose.

"He didn't claim he was doing protected activity," Gutierrez said. "There's got to be a limit."

"He knows that kind of behavior is not one that should be tolerated, and hopefully he'll throttle back his activity," Gutierrez added.

Lozano said he isn't trying to silence Tuttle, but wants to address his "unpredictable and aggressive" behavior.

"I need to be cautious. I don't know what he's capable of doing," Lozano said.

Pacheco said he became concerned for his family's safety after the Santa Barbara conference.

"My goal is to protect myself and my family," he said.

Garcia said she decided to take legal action after the conference because of what she considered Tuttle's obsessive behavior and use of derogatory language toward her.

"There are fears I have," she said. "It's not about me taking away his 1st Amendment rights."

"He tried to use intimidation tactics," Pacheco said.

In arguing on Tuttle's behalf, Cook cited Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Bruce F. Marrs.

"I said these council members need to grow up and stop filing lawsuits because they're bothered by people being around them," he said. "Imagine, how many lawsuits could be filed to enjoin Trump with the council's logic?"

On Tuesday, Marrs ruled in favor of Cook and his client and said all of Tuttle's activities were protected as free speech and that there was no credible evidence of a threat.

Marrs dissolved Pacheco's restraining order and denied Lozano and Garcia's requests.

Cook said he was happy with the win but took the case pro bono because he wanted to send a message: "Stand your ground. People have the right to speak freely and investigate public officials," Cook said.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Twitter: @latvives

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 21, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "City's bid to silence critic fails - Judge rejects Baldwin Park officials' request for restraining order against a gadfly on free-speech grounds." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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