Rye columnist wins $145G in First Amendment case
RYE BROOK - A newspaper columnist who sued Rye town for trying to suppress his free speech has been awarded $145,000 in a settlement that ends years of litigation.
Bernard Abel, founder of The Westmore News, a weekly newspaper that covers Port Chester, Rye Brook and Rye town, claimed in a 2004 federal lawsuit that town officials put a lien on his home for unpaid taxes and had their supporters harass him in an effort to stop negative columns about officials. Abel was a vocal critic of the board's ethics and its hiring and bidding practices.
Abel's lawsuit followed a legal action by former Town Attorney Monroe Mann, who claimed Abel libeled him in a 2003 column that called Mann a "political hatchet man." The column also incorrectly said Mann was a key player in a school board decision 30 years ago to give students short notice about which high school they would attend.
A state Supreme Court jury originally awarded Mann $106,115 in damages, a verdict that was overturned last year by a state appellate court judge. The case worried news organizations, which feared that the verdict would weaken their legal protections in defamation lawsuits.
Abel, 85, said he views the recent settlement as a victory for First Amendment rights.
"You, and I, and everyone have a right to criticize our government," he said. "When our government meets to try and shut us up, it's wrong."
Town Attorney Paul Noto said settling was a smart move because Abel had a strong case.
"It was compelling enough that there was concern that it could have gone poorly for the town," he said. "It didn't seem worth the effort to take that chance."
The town's insurance carrier will pay the settlement and legal fees.
Mann said "it was a disaster to pay money to Mr. Abel," who he said had "unnecessarily derogated me."
Mann argued that his longtime opponent "had personal vindictiveness" about the town's questioning his permanent residency and whether he owed property taxes.
The 87-year-old also disputed that town officials launched a campaign to silence Abel.
"He had as much freedom of speech as he wanted," Mann said. "He had a newspaper; we didn't."