As a Russian immigrant whose grandparents were killed by Nazis, Irina Chevaldina appreciates the First Amendment better than many Americans.
That is why she is refusing to back down against one of the richest men in Miami, Raanan Katz, a minority owner of the Miami Heat who also owns more than 6,000,000 square feet of retail space in Miami.
Katz has been trying to shut down her blog in a state court for more than a year, even though she bases most of it on public court records that show he has not only been sued countless times over the years for unscrupulous business practices, but has also served time in jail.
On Thursday, a Florida judge found no evidence that Katz suffered defamation or damages because of Chevaldina’s blog, but nevertheless banned her and her husband from stepping on any of Katz’s properties, which pretty much prevents them from visiting any of the local businesses in the community of Sunny Isles, which is known as Little Moscow for its high Russian population.
Judge Ellen Leesfield said they shouldn’t want to visit these premises anyway because of their hatred for the man.
But Chevaldina said many of these business owners are their Russian friends who rent from Katz and invite them into their stores and restaurants.
Chevaldina’s attorney, Marc Randazza, has 30 days to appeal the decision before the order goes into effect.
The ruling shows that despite the fact that the First Amendment supposedly protects citizens from publicizing the truth, especially about public figures like Katz, not all judges will see it that way.
It is especially worrisome considering Chevaldina and her husband have no history of disturbances or incidents while on Katz’s properties, meaning there should be no basis for the trespassing order. Her activism is solely limited to her blog, which is based on public records and should be protected speech.
But Katz has a lot of clout in this town, enough apparently to try and quash the First Amendment, including her freedom to associate freely.
Katz also sued Chevaldina for a copyright violation in federal court over an unflattering photo of Katz she has repeatedly published under the fair use argument, which allows use of copyrighted material without obtaining permission in certain cases.
Katz hated the photo so much that he tracked down the photographer in Israel and purchased exclusive rights to it, enabling him to file his copyright suit.
But he made the mistake of including Google in his lawsuit after they refused to abide by a couple of DMCA takedown requests he filed against them, which made the photo go viral on several news sites over the summer, including PINAC.
He quietly withdrew his suit against Google a month later, but his suit against Chevaldina is still pending after a judge refused to dismiss it in August, writing an interesting brief that dissects the fair use argument we’ve seen made so many times on the internet but rarely settled in court.
Chevaldina is confident that her use of the photo falls under the fair use act and has even altered the photo a bit as you can see below.
The conflict stems from a contract dispute the Chevaldinas had with Katz over a commercial space they were renting from him in which they sued in 2009.
While the suit, which was ultimately dismissed, was pending, Chevaldina launched her blog titled RK Associates, which just happens to be the name of his company.
Her first post dated May 3, 2011 was titled RK Associates History and Some Facts, informing readers that Katz was found guilty of criminal contempt in Massachusetts in 1979, serving a 30-day sentence.
She also posted a link that indicates he got in trouble for denying rental properties to black people in 1974.
And she included that very unflattering photo of Katz of him sticking his tongue out.
Katz responded a month later by filing his defamation suit against her, which only encouraged her to continue blogging, citing endless cases where he abused an acceleration clause in the contract, forcing tenants to pay several years of rent after they missed a single monthly payment, turning a $3,000 debt into one exceeding $200,000.
He also has a habit of automatic renewing tenants’ leases if they fail to notify via certified mail that they plan to vacate the premises six months before the termination of the lease, which forces the tenants to pay an additional five-years rent even after they move out.
Katz and his son, Daniel Katz, call these “standard industry” practices.
But if that’s the case, then they wouldn’t be accusing Chevaldina of damaging their reputation to potential tenants who stumble upon her blog while determining whether to sign a contract with them or not.
And they surely wouldn’t be threatening newspapers with defamation if they dared report on this story as they did to the Miami New Times last year.
In the meantime, Levine has strong words for anyone who would consider writing about Katz’s lawsuit. “I’d ask you not to publish anything about this,” he says. “Even pointing people toward that blog could constitute further defamation.”
During Thursday’s hearing, Katz’s attorney, Alan Kluger, compared this story to that of a rabbi in an old European village who was witnessed sticking fruit in his jacket at a local market, as you can see in the video below.
Word quickly spread around town that the rabbi had been stealing, but it turned out, he was only sticking food in his jacket to give to the poor under the direction of the market owner who wanted to remain anonymous as the donor.
By the time the rabbi explained to the witness that he was only trying to help the poor, the rabbi’s reputation had been destroyed.
But common sense tells us that no rabbi in his right mind would be stupid enough to agree to such a scheme where he would put his reputation at risk, especially when there are several other options to donate the food to the poor, so the rabbi was most likely stealing, despite his elaborate story to the contrary.
And common sense also tells us that Katz’s long history of aggressive business tactics, which have resulted in an endless spate of lawsuits against him from a multitude of former tenants, lean more toward unscrupulous business practices rather than standard industry practices.
And that is even more reason why the First Amendment rights of Chevaldina, who speaks in the video below, should be protected.