Federal Judge Absolves Gulf County Commissioners of Liability in Landmark Ruling


Court finds commissioners cannot be sued in their official capacity

A Federal judge dismissed with prejudice August 30 a First Amendment case brought against five Gulf County commissioners by Freedom Communications, parent company of The Star, a Gulf County-based community newspaper.   The County commissioners were represented by Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell Partner Leonard Dietzen and County Attorney Timothy McFarland.

County commissioners requested an apology when The Star refused to publish an article on civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  The Amended Complaint alleges that because of The Star’s refusal, the commission issued a request for proposals regarding future placement of its legal ads and notices.  

Though The Star continues to do all of the County’s legal ads and notices, the company decided to file suit against the County and each commissioner, alleging they violated rights to free speech and editorial discretion.  

U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak sided with the county commissioners in dismissing the Amended Complaint with prejudice.  Now, only the County is remaining as a party.

In handing down his ruling, Judge Smoak cited a Biblical verse stating that The Star “appears to have transposed the wording of the admonition of St. Matthew and has strained at a camel and swallowed a gnat.”

Thursday’s ruling may mark the first time a Florida federal court has directly held that individual commissioners cannot be sued in their official capacity with the county in a civil rights case.  

Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell provides litigation and counseling services in a wide range of civil practice areas including products liability, commercial litigation, intellectual property, environmental, employment, insurance, professional liability, health care and administrative law. Offices are located in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Tallahassee and Birmingham, Alabama.

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