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Free speech limits tested outside inn

Times Staff Writer

The most important free speech case now before the California Supreme Court carries neither the heft of the Pentagon Papers nor the emotion of Nazis seeking to march in Skokie, Ill.

In fact, the figure at the center of the case, a Christian evangelist in Newport Beach, makes a highly unlikely 1st Amendment hero. Anne Lemen, 58, says she doesn’t care about free speech or the constitutional question that her case, like the Pentagon Papers before it, poses: When may government prevent speech before it has occurred?

Lemen just wants to tell people that she believes her nemesis, the Village Inn on Balboa Island, is mafia, as are her former husband and the guards at a local church, and the police are in cahoots. And, she wonders aloud, why would anyone accuse an innocent Christian woman of lying?

On top of that, Lemen contended, “the bar,” as she calls the Village Inn, has tried to murder her.

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Lemen owns a cottage only feet from the restaurant and led a campaign to restrict it because she said it disrupted the neighborhood. Aric Toll, 41, a chef who bought the restaurant and bar with his parents, filed a defamation lawsuit against Lemen, saying she was ruining his business.

After a trial, a judge ordered Lemen to stop videotaping Toll’s customers and barred her from telling anyone that the bar makes sex videos, dabbles in child pornography, distributes illegal drugs, encourages lesbian activities, has mafia links, is a whorehouse or sells tainted food -- all false statements, the court said, that Lemen had made. She appealed the order before it could be enforced.

Prior restraint

Courts around the country have disagreed over whether such “prior restraint” orders in defamation cases are constitutional, and cases involving them are multiplying as people sue to stop alleged defamation on the Internet. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld prior restraint in cases of national security and obscenity, but not in a defamation complaint. When it took up the question in a case brought by the late attorney Johnnie Cochran against a picket, the high court said only that the order against the picket was unconstitutionally broad.

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Duke University constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky is paying his own way to California and working free of charge to tell the California Supreme Court today that the order violates Lemen’s right to free speech.

If Lemen loses, such court orders might become “a regular remedy in defamation cases,” Chemerinsky said. Newspapers could even be barred from covering a person who won one, he said. In his view, the only appropriate remedy for defamation is monetary damages.

But J. Scott Russo, who will represent the Village Inn at the hearing, said the order was Toll’s only way to stop Lemen from hurting his business. He said Toll did not ask for damages because it was impossible to specify how much money Lemen had cost him.

“It’s ridiculous that someone can stand in front of a restaurant and tell patrons that the food makes you sick and that they sell drugs and have prostitution, and a court would have its hands tied and could not say ‘Stop,’ ” Russo said.

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Balboa Island is a densely packed maze of mostly small but expensive homes, some of which are adjacent to stores and restaurants. The Newport Beach island’s reputation for rowdy nightlife has given way to a sedate atmosphere as rising home prices have turned vacation rentals into year-round homes.

The bar has been on Marine Avenue since the 1930s, and regulars reportedly have included James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Bing Crosby. Lemen’s dispute with Toll began when he and his family bought it in November 2000. Some neighbors, including Lemen, had also feuded with the previous owner.

Lemen, who owns the two-unit cottage a narrow alley away from the restaurant, began pestering Toll’s employees and patrons, calling them “whores” and “Satan,” videotaping departing customers walking to their cars and taking flash photographs through the restaurant’s windows, court documents said.

Later, she helped organize a campaign to stop the city from granting the bar approval to expand its entertainment.

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A burly, reserved man who prefers to work in the kitchen rather than the “front of the house,” Toll said there was “no way” he would have bought Village Inn if he had been warned about Lemen.

She once parked in front of his restaurant and blasted the horn for 30 minutes nonstop, he said. On another evening, he said, he watched as passersby scanned his window menu and fled after Lemen told them the food was poisonous and the place was filled with rats.

“I decided something had to be done,” said Toll, seated in his mostly deserted dining room on a Sunday night.

Although Lemen continues to deny most of the allegations, the trial judge found otherwise. A Court of Appeal later struck down much of his order on 1st Amendment grounds, including the part that blocked her from disparaging the bar. The court left in place a prohibition against videotaping within 25 feet of the bar.

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The California Supreme Court will rule on the case within three months. If it upholds the original order, Lemen could be jailed or fined for making the banned statements in the future.

“All you need to win in court are two liars, one to back up the other, against the nice, innocent Christian woman,” said Lemen, who wears her blond hair in a pageboy with bangs.

Lemen talks at breakneck speed and sometimes bursts into religious hymns or dances to the ring of her cellphone. “You should write this down,” she repeatedly tells a reporter.

Her Balboa Island home, which she bought in 1989 and now rents out, has a colorful front garden of faux flowers and a replica of the Statue of Liberty holding a Bible. The garden also contains a large stone Bible with Christian verses and a small lighthouse with the words “The Lord Is Our Light.” Little booklets about Christianity, titled “Smile, Jesus Loves You,” are there for passersby to pick up.

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On the front of the cottage hangs a large silver circle emblazoned with an eagle and the words “In God We Trust.” She said she put it up after hearing that civil libertarians opposed the mention of God on money.

“I decided I am going to make that a Christian heritage house for you, my Lord,” she said.

During a recent conversation, she suggested she pose “for fun” in a plastic crown with a torch she retrieved from the cottage basement. So adorned, she put her arm around her frontyard Statue of Liberty and belted out religious hymns as people walked by and stared.

‘I don’t want free speech’

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Although she is the subject of a major constitutional court case, Lemen doesn’t particularly like lawyers -- “They are all about money” -- and complains that her own lawyer, D. Michael Bush, cares only about free speech and becoming “famous” because of it.

She would prefer her lawyers to focus on “what the bar has been up to.”

“What’s an attorney if he won’t defend you?” Lemen said. “I don’t want free speech.”

Lemen’s lawyers point out that she made many of the disputed statements as part of her campaign against the bar’s expanded license, a matter of widespread public interest.

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She gathered about 400 signatures from the island’s 1,200 residents to oppose the permit, but the bar won.

Several neighbors interviewed said they now enjoy good relations with Toll’s Village Inn, and Lemen said the bar had become quieter as a result of her efforts. Lemen, who said she is a registered nurse with grown children, believes she has paid a big price for speaking out.

“There have been four attempts on my life, and the police refuse to investigate because they are part of the bar,” she said.

Neighbors defend the bar

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In interviews, business owners and neighborhood residents praised the owner of the Village Inn and criticized Lemen. None would be identified. “I don’t want her coming after my business,” one said.

Another neighbor said of Lemen, “She’s just goofy, honey.” The neighbor described the owner of the bar as “that poor guy.”

Another longtime resident said the bar was not the problem; “it’s her. She is just a very unique individual. You just try to stay clear of her.”

While renting her cottage -- she said the bar drove her to move -- Lemen lives in a gated, adult community miles from Balboa Island.

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There she stores piles of documents about the bar and evidence she has gathered. She asked a Times photographer not to photograph her files because “the bar is going to break in and take this” if the presence of the files became known.

Lemen popped a videotape into her VCR to show scenes of crowds of young adults in the early-morning hours outside the bar several years ago. A young woman in the crowd wore a halter top.

“Look at how she dresses,” Lemen gasped.

Some Christian friends of Lemen have been trying to help her. Craig W. Fletcher, who showed up at Lemen’s apartment, said he was there for her protection. He described her as his best friend, later adding that he had known her for two months.

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“She’s really a cross between Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc and Erin Brockovich,” Fletcher said.

Bush, her primary lawyer, said the 1st Amendment should protect “vulnerable” people like Lemen, who “is just not an effective advocate for herself and could be crushed.”

“A kernel of truth can come from the most unlikely sources, which is why I think it is important to have the most free and robust debate,” Bush said. “Who knows? Even Anne Lemen might have something to say.”

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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