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Lawyers Spar Over HP Developer's Defamation Suit and How to Prove An Alliance "Unholy"

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Carla Main says she did everything she could to sit down with Highland Park developer Hiram Walker Royall while reporting her book Bulldozed: "Kelo," Eminent Domain and the American Lust for Land. She finally got in the same room with him today, though, in a morning hearing over Royall's defamation suit against Main and her publishers. "I heard the door open behind me, and there he was," she tells Unfair Park.

The two didn't exchange words, though, leaving it to their lawyers to tackle the suit's latest chapter in the Fifth District Court of Appeals -- the big event Robert alerted you to yesterday. The book's a critical look at the City of Freeport's takeover of some waterfront property for development by a group led by Royall, which came on the heels of the Supreme Court's landmark Kelo ruling affirming cities' rights to flip private property through eminent domain.

Royall's lawyers say the entire book is defamatory, along with 91 specific passages inside; lawyers for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which handles eminent domain cases across the country, say Royall has yet to prove any of Main's purported facts are wrong.

Last November, District Judge Carlos Cortez denied Main's lawyers' motion to dismiss the case for lack of evidence, so this morning we were all in the friendly confines of the George Allen Courts Building as lawyers from each side gave their 20-minute arguments for the judges.

Dana Berliner laid out the case for the Institute for Justice, telling the trio of judges that Royall may simply disagree with the book, but "the gist of Bulldozed is political and social criticism." Royall's lawyers haven't proven Main got any of her facts wrong, Berliner said, but "what Mr. Royall really disagrees with are Ms. Main's conclusions from these uncontested facts" -- that, for instance, Royall's "unholy alliance" with the city is the reason he got to enjoy that "sweetheart deal" on the waterfront. (Whether or not the alliance was "unholy," Berliner pointed out, is a good example of the unverifiable facts Royall is complaining about.) Holy or not, as today's Wall Street Journal notes, that alliance has pretty well tanked lately too, with Royall and Freeport taking one another to court.

Royall's lawyer Patrick Zummo spent much of his time on a jurisdictional argument about whether a book qualifies as "print media," going all what-is-the-future-of-the-news with a shout-out to an e-publishing story in the morning's WSJ. Zummo said it's enough for the court to decide if the gist of the book is defamatory: "Because the book is about him, it was clear that the statements about the controversy in Freeport concern Walker Royall."

Zummo said that until reports about the Freeport deal started coming out, Royall had been a private figure, and to the extent he's a public figure now, it's only because he's been defamed so publicly in the press and in Main's book. "There was no publicity about him at the time he agreed to get involved," Zummo said.

John Kramer, with the Institute for Justice, says defamation suits against people speaking out against eminent domain are increasingly common. "We've actually seen an unfortunate trend across the country, in Tennessee, Missouri, and Washington State," he says, over speech, a newspaper ad and a "multi-story permanent sign that said, 'End eminent domain abuse.'"

Main says that back when she was reporting for her book, she knew Royall had already filed a defamation suit against the owners of the shrimp business that the city of Freeport claimed by eminent domain. "I was very careful about what I said about him," Main says, but still never thought he'd go after her as well. "I wasn't going to be cowed by him or intimidated by him. I thought this was an important story to tell."

You can read through both sides' written arguments in yesterday's post.

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