By Lynn Walsh, BrowardBulldog.org
A First Amendment battle has erupted between a prominent South Florida developer and a blogger, who so far has only been identified as “John Doe.”
Raanan Katz, a minority owner of the Miami Heat, and his family-owned company R.K. Associates are suing the anonymous blogger for defamation and libel for reports he claims are false and malicious.
The blogger’s Fort Lauderdale attorney, Robert Kain, argues in court papers that his client is a “citizen journalist” deserving of First Amendment protection because his reporting on Katz is about “matters of public concern.”
“Doe is an anonymous citizen journalist critically reporting what he considers to be abusive litigation tactics and prior criminal convictions by a well know public person Raanan Katz and Katz’ companies,” the papers say.
Katz filed the case in state court in June, but it has since been removed to federal court in Miami. Katz dropped an additional claim for false advertising against the blogger last week.
“The true thrust of our case is defamation,” said Todd Levine, a Miami lawyer for Katz and the company.
Kain calls Katz’s litigation a “classic slap suit” by a big developer seeking to suppress a critic.
“There is no defamation, you can read it,” Kain said in an interview. “Mr. Katz needs to realize that sometimes in doing business you will be criticized.”
In the blogger’s defense, Kain includes the assertion that his client has a First Amendment right to “maintain his anonymous status.”
Levine calls the nameless blogger a “coward hiding behind the cloak of the Internet.”
Katz’s son, Daniel Katz, vice president and owner of the company, is also a plaintiff against John Doe. The blog details previous legal battles and activities involving Raanan, his son and their real estate company.
KATZ AND HIS PROMINENCE ARGUED
R.K. Associates owns over six million square feet of commercial space in Florida and New England, including 14 shopping centers in South Florida, the company website says. Their properties include two in Hallandale Beach and the landmark Searstown Plaza in Fort Lauderdale.
The privately-held company was founded by the elder Katz, who remains the principal owner of the company.
Katz, an Israeli immigrant, has a street named after him in Sunny Isles Beach, according to news articles.The renaming of Northeast 170th Street at Collins Avenue was done as part of a $7 million eminent domain settlement with the city.
The elder Katz was called “one of the most prolific real estate owners in Miami-Dade” in a 2008 article inMiami New Times.
John Doe publishes articles about the Katzes and their real estate company in the blog in called “RK Associates.” It is published free on blogspot.com, a Google-owned company. The domain is RKAssociatesUSA and the information is also posted on a second website based in the United Kingdom.
The archive on the U.S. site shows 22 posts about Katz and his company starting in May.
“There are some things that are taken from other people’s claims that may not be defamation,” Levine acknowledged. “But there are other parts that really surpass opinions and come out to be a conclusion or moral of a story…to [falsely] show that the company and my clients are ‘criminals’…a clear indication that my clients are bad people.”
The blog details previous legal battles and activities involving Raanan, Daniel and their real estate company. A recent post claims the company “ripped off the single mother of a special needs child.”
According to a post dated July 24: “RK Associates, Raanan Katz, and Daniel Katz automatically renewed her lease, without her knowledge and consent, from January 1, 2009 for the next five years and filed legal action against her claiming damages for five years in advance in the amount of about quarter a million dollars.”
Levine said some content posted by John Doe is accurate, but the lawyer did not elaborate on what was true.
TRUTH AS A DEFENSE
Attorney Jon Kaney, a board member of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said the blogger has a First Amendment right to publish stories if what is being said can be supported by facts.
“The blogger’s opinion, if it is based on facts that he has disclosed or in this case linked to, and he tells the reader what the company is doing and then shares his opinion that he believes it is inappropriate or whatever the case may be, then that’s protected.”
Kaney is a partner at Cobb & Cole in Daytona Beach.
“Truth is always a defense to defamation,” Levine acknowledged. “But [the blogger] would have to prove this. And this person signs off every post with ‘always true.’ He is saying, this is the only spot where you are going to find information about my client.”
Other articles on the blog discuss alleged racketeering charges against the Katz’ and their company and allegations of falsely asking for rental reimbursement associated with a property the company owns.
Levine says the blogger and his lawyer are trying to make people believe Raanan Katz is a public figure, which would require Katz to offer a higher level of proof to win in court. The Katzes “are not Donald Trump-type businessmen that make themselves out to be celebrities. He owns shopping centers; he doesn’t have a radio show; he doesn’t have a magazine like Oprah;, he isn’t on red carpets.”
Having Sunny Isles Beach name a street after the developer isn’t enough to make him a public figure, Levine argues.
“If I told someone to meet me at Raanan Katz Boulevard they wouldn’t know where that was,” Levine said, comparing the street named after Katz to a school driveway.
Sunny Isles Beach has also named a public gymnasium after Katz and his wife.
Raanan Katz was an original partner of the expansion franchise for the Heat and has “been a fixture at courtside” games since the team’s inaugural season in 1988, according to the company website.
WHO IS JOHN DOE?
While much is publicly known about Raanan Katz, that can’t be said for his critic.
On one of his blogs, Doe identifies himself only a male living in Boston.
The Katz complaint initially accused “John Doe” of being a competitor. But Levine has backed away from that contention, and now says he believes Doe “is a disgruntled employee or disgruntled tenant,” he said.
Either way, Levine intends to find out precisely.
He said a subpoena has been issued to Google in an attempt to unmask John Doe.