A Brevard County judge sided with attorneys for Florida Rep. Randy Fine on Wednesday, throwing out a request for a restraining order filed by Brevard School Board member Jennifer Jenkins after she said Fine "cyberstalked" her on social media.
Fine's legal team moved to dismiss the case, arguing the series of public Facebook posts, in which Fine targeted Jenkins with personal and increasingly inflammatory rhetoric over her support of Brevard's public school mask mandate, amounted to protected speech and failed to meet the statutory definitions of harassment or cyberstalking.
"Like statutes that regulate speech, court-ordered injunctions also are subjected to First Amendment scrutiny," Fine attorney Aaron Lyons said to Senior Circuit Judge James Earp at Wednesday's hearing. "There is an extremely high level of scrutiny that applies to speech, particularly speech between public officials commenting, whether it's offensive, defamatory, whatever, between themselves or about themselves."
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Earp apparently agreed, calling the arguments "well taken" but offering no further comment before granting the motion to dismiss.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Jenkins said she "respected" but "completely disagreed" with the judge's decision.
"Personally, I feel this ruling today just gives authority to someone with power (and) political position to incite harassment and threats against another individual, and excuses that behavior," Jenkins said.
Fine was in Tallahassee on Wednesday for the legislative session and did not appear in court. He was chairing a session of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee when the ruling was handed down.
"Jennifer Jenkins doesn't seem to understand that elected officials are allowed to be criticized," Fine told FLORIDA TODAY. "She's proven to have no understanding of the law, whether it's breaking it on mask mandates .... or wasting the court's time with this."
Earp also granted without comment Wednesday a motion to dismiss in a similar case filed against Fine by Robert Burns, a Brevard political consultant and Fine critic who has been publicly linked to Jenkins.
Burns — who has run helped run past campaigns for Fine's political opponents — is another frequent target of Fine's rhetoric and name-calling on Facebook, and often trades barbs with Fine and other Brevard elected officials in public venues.
"It's clear (harassment) is what's happening," Burns said. "What I told the judge was, if what he is doing is not cyberstalking, than what possibly can be? What else can you do?"
Jenkins filed her request for injunction in October. She accused Fine in court documents of "cyberstalking" and "harassment" that began in July, when Fine posted her personal cell phone number and urged his Facebook followers to express their views a school mask mandate then under consideration (and later passed) by the Brevard County School Board.
The incident resulted in "hundreds of calls, texts and voicemails," she wrote in a two-page, handwritten statement.
Fine defended his posting of the cell phone number, pointing out the number was already publicly available on campaign documents filed by Jenkins during the last election.
"From that point on, Randy posts lies on social media, daily, sometimes multiple times a day, calling me 'mentally ill,' 'child abuser,' 'prostitute,'" Jenkins wrote in her complaint. "I am terrified this narrative of 'child abuser' will incite violence, more threats and harassments against me and my family."
Her multiple requests for a temporary injunction — which judges may issue in advance of a hearing if a party can prove an immediate danger of injury, loss or damage — were all denied.
Christopher Muro, a political science professor at Eastern Florida State College, said Wednesday's ruling was "not surprising" given the court's longstanding deference to political speech.
"First Amendment protections are very broad when it comes to even offensive speech," Muro said. "In the absence of an overt action that would leave a reasonable person fearing imminent death or danger, the courts almost exclusively will fall on the side of free speech."
Brevard Democratic Executive Committee chair Pamela Castellana, who accompanied Jenkins to court Wednesday, called the outcome "appalling."
"Keeping a person from her day in court and the opportunity to face her abuser is disgusting," she said.
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Jenkins said she would discuss her options to continue pursuing the case with her attorneys.
"I'm disappointed because of the extreme amount of stress and trauma my family has gone through because of his harassment, and I'm going to figure out how to go forward," she said.
Eric Rogers is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Rogers at 321-242-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @EricRogersFT.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard School Board member's case against Florida Rep. Randy Fine tossed