Bloomfield Township leaders sue Nextdoor

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published June 23, 2020

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — There are around 11,000 residents signed up for the Bloomfield Township network of the Nextdoor social media site.

That’s a big audience, and some township officials said it’s turned into a big problem for spreading misinformation and outright lies.

Supervisor Leo Savoie and Treasurer Brian Kepes have filed a lawsuit against Nextdoor, claiming it has neglected its own user policies and allowed its message boards to become a platform of misinformation and bullying, causing a loss of public service benefits to members of the township overall.

In other words, Savoie and Kepes say the reason a police and fire special assessment district ballot proposal failed in 2019 is because some members of the social network spread falsities about the details of the proposal and ultimately influenced the election results, which led to cuts in township services.

“I think (Nextdoor) was partially responsible for false information out there for the SAD, really,” Savoie said. “Anybody can post anything, even if it’s not accurate and harmful. That’s the big thing. Their platform was not good for the fabric of any community, and I hear that from all over.”

The suit, filed by attorneys Norman Yatooma and Christine Constantino, was received by Oakland County Circuit Court May 6. Along with the California-based Nextdoor, which has 236,000 neighborhood networks globally, the complaint names specifically township residents Val Murray and Kathleen Norton-Schock, claiming they led efforts to bully and attack users — particularly those in favor of the current township administration — and shared misinformation to sway voters.

Among the accusations named in the complaint are allegations of inflated estimates about tax increases, wrongful statements about where SAD dollars would be directed and unfounded claims of poor transparency.

“I think it’s safe to say (my clients) are shocked and a bit rattled to have been singled out by their elected officials as somehow doing something wrong,” said Brian Wassom, the attorney representing Murray and Norton-Schock. “The complaint is filled with words like ‘bully,’ ‘harass’ and ‘intimidate.’ The posts to justify those accusations, they’re pretty plain, vanilla conversations about the issues.”

As the SAD is used in the complaint as an example of ill consequences to the public caused by misinformation, so too is the recent COVID-19 crisis. One user allegedly stated that township offices and all services were closed due to the virus, which was not true. Services continued as normal, the suit states, and Township Hall was open to residents by appointment.

Savoie said he and Kepes had not originally intended to file suit, rather they had hoped to discuss the issue with Nextdoor outside of court, but the platform couldn’t be reached, even by certified letter.

“It wasn’t like we didn’t try to talk to them about it. I find it absolutely appalling. If they’re there for the communities and for communication, when the head of a community reaches out to communicate and there is no response, it’s completely unacceptable,” Savoie said.

He added that Nextdoor’s culpability lies in its functionality, which considers high-contributing users to be leaders, able to decide which comments are promoted and which are removed from message boards, allegedly pushing libelous posts to the top of the heap and removing statements that Savoie said defend him and his administration.

Wassom said that under the First Amendment, political speech can be protected, even if it’s untrue.

“I’m not sure how any lawyer can look at this complaint and say it can stand up to scrutiny. Supreme Court case law says that even false speech is protected under the First Amendment” in some circumstances, Wassom explained. “The First Amendment is meant to encourage robust debate of a political issue. People shouldn’t have to be concerned if they misstate, exaggerate or don’t get all the details right.”

Linda Ulrey, a member of the civic advocacy group Better Bloomfield Township — known largely for its campaign against the SAD proposal last year and, more broadly, against Savoie — said the suit is an affront to residents’ constitutional First Amendment rights. She likened it to a SLAPP suit, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation. She’s also a candidate for the Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees.

“The lawsuit by the Kepes/Savoie tandem team is another salvo in the ongoing war they have declared on the township residents,” said Ulrey in an email. “They failed to convince residents to go along with their SAD tax scheme … with their craftily honed threats of public safety losses if the tax failed at the ballot box. Kepes and Savoie chose to shut down the rights to free speech with a SLAPP-style lawsuit to trample township residents’ rights to public dissent.”

Resident Joe Cunnings, another member of BBT, echoed Ulrey’s thoughts in a public comment directed to the board during a virtual meeting.

“The suit names the Nextdoor platform for hosting public discussions that Savoie and Kepes deem inappropriate because the forums tend to skew negatively against their actions and characters,” Cunnings stated. “The intention of the SLAPP is to silence the public citizen and force them to spend money defending a frivolous lawsuit that the politician has no expectation of winning.  A SLAPP lawsuit is a despicable attempt to silence the free speech of their opposition.”

Wassom added that the suit seems to be politically motivated, in his opinion.

“Why did they single out Val Murray out of everyone?” he asked. “Perhaps it’s because she is running (for Bloomfield Township trustee). A defendant in a lawsuit is smart to not comment on pending litigation, so one wonders if this is to shut her up.”

Asked how he would respond to accusations that he is trying to stifle free speech, Savoie said that’s not what the suit is about.

“It may be your opinion that the world is flat, but that doesn’t make it true,” he said. “So many people out-and-out lie on Nextdoor.”

The suit seeks to award monetary damages for the plaintiffs, to be held in trust for the township. Wassom said he hopes the case will be dismissed immediately, and the plaintiffs will be sanctioned for filing a frivolous complaint and ordered to pay court costs and attorney fees.

“I will tell you, I’ve been practicing in this area of law for 20 years, and I was a clerk for a federal judge before that. This is the most offensive First Amendment lawsuit I’ve seen in all that time,” he said. “(Savoie and Kepes) are behaving like petty tyrants.”

Nextdoor declined to comment on the case while in litigation.