A progressive activist is threatening to sue state Rep. Angela Williams for “retaliation” after a Denver County Court magistrate in November rejected a request by Williams for a protection order against the activist.
Boulder County resident Darren O’Connor, a member of the Colorado Foreclosure Resistance Coalition (CFRC), has hired the high-profile civil rights Denver-based law firm of Killmer, Lane and Newman to handle the case.
As first reported by The Colorado Statesman in December, Williams, D-Denver, had sought a restraining order against O’Connor after she alleged that he was stalking and physically threatening her. Williams said this week that she continues to believe her safety was at risk.
Rep. Angela Williams
But on Nov. 25, Magistrate Catherine Cary denied the request after court testimony suggested that O’Connor had never actually outright threatened the chairwoman of the House Business, Labor, Economic and Workforce Development Committee. The magistrate opined that O’Connor was simply exercising political speech.
The issue arose following a heated debate in the legislature last year over foreclosure reform. As the chairwoman of the Business, Labor, Economic and Workforce Development Committee, Williams oversaw the effort to pass foreclosure reform. Activists said they had tried to schedule meetings with Williams, but that she would not honor their requests.
O’Connor had been one of the most outspoken activists, pressuring Williams by phone and email and through social media and in person. At one point he showed up at Williams’ Denver home and left his business card on her doorstep; he also made his presence known at several town hall meetings hosted by Williams.
She had pointed out that O’Connor is not a direct constituent since he lives in Boulder County. But O’Connor had argued that foreclosure reform is an issue that affects the entire state, and as chairwoman of the Business, Labor, Economic and Workforce Development Committee, it was important to schedule a meeting with Williams.
Williams, however, felt that the increasing pressure was turning into outright threats, and she took steps to protect herself, including asking local police to place extra patrol units near her home. Security cameras were installed at her home to monitor activity.
Magistrate Cary pointed to several First Amendment precedents in her explanation for denying the restraining order, pointing out that Williams is a public official.
“In general, political speech is protected speech under the First Amendment to the constitution, even if it vehemently or unpleasantly attacks a public official,” Cary said in her ruling.
Testimony revealed that even Denver Police Department Cmdr. Mike Calo, who had a presence at town hall meetings attended by O’Connor, described O’Connor as “calm, using no profanity, not disruptive, and a gentleman.”
In a legal letter sent to Williams on behalf of O’Connor by attorney Darold Killmer, the attorney claims that Williams attempted to retaliate against O’Connor for his efforts to professionally engage with Williams.
“You sought a civil protection order against Mr. O’Connor to silence his constitutionally protected speech,” surmises Killmer. “This form of retaliation and abuse of process at the hands of a public official is especially troubling.”
The letter goes on to state that O’Connor and others had simply tried to “get an audience” with Williams to discuss her shifting position on the foreclosure reform measure moving through the legislative process. But Williams would not meet with the activists, pointing out that they are not residents of her district.
Killmer does not believe Williams’ explanation was valid, suggesting, “Given your willingness to meet with non-CFRC parties — namely, lobbyists and banking and business interests — who were likewise not members of your district, this purported reason for refusing to meet with Mr. O’Connor was merely pretext to ignore, if not plainly silence, political dissent…
“Through all of these efforts, Mr. O’Connor was steadfastly professional but determined to engage with you,” the letter continues. “You, however, continued to flout your duty as an elected, public official by refusing to acknowledge him and his concerns.”
Killmer points out that O’Connor was served with a temporary restraining order at a House District 7 Democrats meeting on Oct. 26 and escorted from the building by three armed police officers, an action that O’Connor and his attorneys believe was extreme.
“Most troubling though, the core of the [temporary restraining order] focused on Mr. O’Connor’s political speech, which you attempted to silence by labeling him a threat and dragging him through a meritless judicial proceeding,” Killmer writes in the letter to Williams.
He agrees with Magistrate Cary that O’Connor’s actions were constitutionally protected political speech.
“You, Ms. Williams, are an elected, public official with a duty to engage in (or at least tolerate) robust political debate with supporters and opponents alike,” writes Killmer. “Indeed, this level of engagement is the very foundation of our democratic system of government. That you have taken ardent steps to silence a passionate, concerned citizen like Mr. O’Connor who simply sought to learn from and educate you on an issue of public concern is deeply disturbing, and it very likely violates federal constitutional law.”
The attorney goes on to say that he and his client have a concrete case against Williams for violating O’Connor’s First Amendment rights, including showing that O’Connor was engaged in political speech; that Williams’ actions chilled O’Connor’s ability to engage in political speech through the temporary restraining order; and that Williams acted in response to O’Connor’s constitutionally protected conduct.
Killmer cites several court precedents demonstrating that public officials must often endure “vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks” in the name of political speech and robust debate. He cites the 1964 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan as an example.
“It is clear that being hauled into court to defend a civil protection order would chill any reasonable person from continuing to engage in his of her constitutionally protected speech,” states Killmer.
“With no sufficient basis on which to seek the protection order, it is clear that you were substantially motivated by a desire to suppress Mr. O’Connor’s political speech — speech that constituted his professional but passionate efforts to engage in a robust debate with you, an elected, public official,” the letter continues. “Indeed, deterring Mr. O’Connor from continuing to engage in such constitutionally protected conduct was quite plainly the entire motivation for your seeking to silence him through judicial action.
“A clearer infringement on constitutional rights is difficult to imagine,” Killmer concludes.
O’Connor and his attorneys have given Williams until Feb. 20 to respond. It appears they are looking to settle with the lawmaker, pointing to damages that include having to hire an attorney to defend against the protection order; risking his job and professional reputation as a result of the allegations; and violating his constitutional rights.
The letter goes on to state that Williams has continued to “disparage Mr. O’Connor and label him a threat to your personal contacts, which continues to harm his reputation in the community.”
“These actions may expose you to additional liability,” explained Killmer.
For his part, O’Connor, an electrical engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, said he has no choice but to sue and that he is willing to file a formal lawsuit if needed. He has not yet disclosed a financial figure, but O’Connor said that he plans on seeking a monetary settlement that is above the actual cost of his legal bills.
“For what she put me through,” O’Connor explained. “Having a police escort, three armed police officers escort me out of an HD 7 Democrats meeting, really slandering me… There should be a cost for refusing the legal system and abusing a citizen.
“She turned to an abuse of the law to chill our questions, to chill a voice of the people supporting issues that she voted against,” he continued.
“This is an important, important issue…” O’Connor added. “Constituents or not, as Colorado citizens, I’m hoping that as a result of this case that [lawmakers will] know that the best thing you can do is to sit down and have the most honest conversation you can and be considerate of the fact that people may have a different opinion of you. That doesn’t mean you can lock your doors and call them bullies.”
Williams acknowledged that she lost her case for a restraining order. But she continues to believe that her safety was at risk.
“I was concerned about my personal safety and the safety of the environment in which I conduct my public meetings, so I exercised my right to ask the court for a restraining order,” she explained.
“The court did not grant the restraining order. I have moved on with my life and I am now back to work at the Capitol to ensure I am the best representative for my district I can possibly be,” Williams continued.
She is in the process of discussing the legal letter with attorneys. Because Williams was acting in her official capacity as a public official, it is possible that she may be able to utilize Legislative Legal Services.
“I find it frustrating that this person, who isn’t even one of my constituents, has become so obsessed with me that he has to disrupt my public meetings on a bill that was heard a year ago,” Williams added. “My constituents elected me to this position and I will continue to serve them to the best of my ability.”