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Save Southern Heritage files defamation lawsuit versus two Hillsborough Democrats

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Save Southern Heritage is going back to court, charging two Hillsborough County Democrats with defamation for calling them a “white supremacist group.”

The leading advocacy group for keeping a Confederate monument in front of the Hillsborough County Courthouse annex is reacting to statements from Ione Townsend, chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee.

The action also takes issue with comments posted on the activist group Organize Florida website as well as those by Tim Heberlein, the political director of the group.

After the Hillsborough County Commission voted to move the 106-year-old Confederate statue to a cemetery in Brandon last month, Save Southern Heritage published a controversial online dossier that contained personal information on more than 100 people who spoke at the BOCC’s July 19 meeting calling for the removal of the statue.

The document so unnerved local activists that Townsend called upon State Attorney Andrew Warren to address the Hillsborough Democrats at their monthly meeting last week in an attempt to see if Save Southern Heritage had done anything illegal in publishing the document.

Warren called the dossier “creepy,” but said it did not rise to the level of a criminal offense.

Save Southern Heritage is citing a statement that Townsend penned to the media at that DEC meeting where she referred to the group as  a “White Supremacist Group.” Townsend’s statement also called on the Hillsborough County Board of County Commission to rescind their appointment of David McCallister, a spokesman for the group, to the county’s diversity board.  “Someone who promotes racism and violence has no place on a council of the county.”

The email contained statements that “were false and defamatory,” the suit alleges.

The suit also says that the activist group Organize Florida created two online petitions on their website that restated Townsend’s allegations. The website also that Save Southern Heritage was “threatening and intimidating community members” and “threatening them through social media, harassing phone calls and even at the meeting” and that SSH is a “[h]ateful and violent” group.

As a result of both of Townsend’s statements: “Plaintiff has been damaged in that SSH has suffered hatred, distrust, contempt, ridicule or obloquy through the explicit and implicit attempts to damage the reputation of the Plaintiffs and its members, even calling for their removal from the Hillsborough County Diversity Council and for the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club to cancel its reservation for the SSH’s annual banquet.”

As a result of McCallister’s appointment, two members of the diversity board resigned. Save Southern Heritage says it is asking for damages “in excess of $15,000.00.”

This is the second lawsuit that Save Southern Heritage has filed regarding the Confederate monument controversy. They went to Hillsborough Circuit Court last week pursuing an injunction to stop Hillsborough County from physically removing the statue. The group submitted documents Monday proving that they have legal standing in the case. Judge Rex Barbas has given Hillsborough County until the end of the way to respond.

The dossier Save Southern Heritage published online included current Democratic Party elected officials; previous Democratic Party elected officials; “failed” Democratic Party officials; Democratic Party Executive Committee members; members of the Hillsborough County Young Democrats; member of the Black Democratic Caucus; “Anti-FA” members; Green Party members; Socialist Democrats; Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) Members; Organize Florida members; members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); so-called “Left wing activists,” which were defined as LGBTQ/climate change/animal rights/ minimum wage/ hands up don’t shoot/Black Lives Matter; and “Anti-Trump activists,” which were listed as members of the Women’s March, No Borders/Dream Defenders.

The group concluded that the movement to move the statue was a “Democratic Party-led campaign augmented with Marxists-Socialists.” It also noted that most participants had no stake in the issue because they either lived outside of Hillsborough County or were not property owners.

Save Southern Heritage had indicated that they had filed the suit on Thursday, but in fact did not do so until Friday afternoon. Townsend was unavailable for comment when initially contacted Thursday afternoon. Heberlein told FloridaPolitics.com that he needed to review the lawsuit before issuing any comments.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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