Charging that an Agoura Hills City Council member's libel suit is an attack on free speech, the American Civil Liberties Union said Monday it will defend two leaders of a failed recall drive against the $1.1-million action.
Councilwoman Louise C. Rishoff, an attorney, filed the suit against David Chagall and Carole Dynda in January during the heated recall effort, which fell short in May of the number of petition signatures needed to force a special election.
Chagall and Dynda sponsored the recall petitions, which Rishoff said falsely accused her of conspiring to violate the Brown Act, a state law requiring that public business be done in the open.
"Clearly what happened here is citizens followed the recall process set out in the Agoura Hills charter and, as a result, they found themselves the subjects of a suit," said Robin S. Toma, an ACLU staff attorney in Los Angeles.
Toma said the suit and others like it elsewhere in the country have a chilling effect on criticism of public officials and on forms of participatory democracy such as recall campaigns.
The Agoura Hills recall campaign targeted Rishoff, along with Councilwoman Fran Pavley, Mayor Darlene McBane and Mayor Pro Tem Vicky Leary, saying among other things that the four allowed city traffic problems to deteriorate.
Chagall and Dynda have been two of the more vocal critics of the council in recent years.
But after the lawsuit was filed, Chagall and Dynda, the wife of former Councilman Ernest Dynda, tried to take a back seat in the recall effort. Neither would provide specifics of their petitions' charges that Rishoff conspired to violate the Brown Act, saying their lawyers advised them to refrain from comment.
"My feeling was that it stifled my First Amendment rights," Chagall said of the suit. "It was intended precisely to affect the recall, to affect criticism, to deflect it."
Rishoff could not be reached for comment Monday. But she said at the time she filed the suit that she was defamed by the accusatory petitions. She insisted that she did not violate the Brown Act.
"I'm not going to hand over my reputation to these people to destroy," Rishoff told reporters at a press conference she held to announce the filing of the suit.