Judge tosses defamation claim filed by former Cape May official

By: - August 16, 2022 7:11 am

A judge Monday ruled that comments made by a housing advocate on a news site about the now-former Cape May city manager were “well within the permissible boundaries” of free expression. The city manager had sued for defamation. (Getty Images)

A Superior Court judge has thrown out a defamation lawsuit Cape May’s former city manager filed against an affordable housing advocate, a ruling civil libertarians are celebrating as a victory for free speech rights.

Jerome E. Inderwies sued Fair Share Housing Center’s executive director, Adam Gordon, in February over comments Gordon made in a Cape May Sentinel story alleging the county prosecutor was investigating whether Inderwies used affordable housing funds to pay for bonuses for himself and others. Inderwies accused Gordon of defamation, invasion of privacy, and civil conspiracy.

But Judge James H. Pickering Jr. ruled Gordon’s comments were constitutionally protected opinion and not malicious or conspiratorial.

“This court finds these statements to be well within the permissible boundaries set by state and federal courts as non-justiciable free expressions of opinion regarding a public figure and a matter of public concern,” Pickering wrote. “Far more inflammatory language has been held to be non-actionable expression of opinion.”

The Sentinel said the prosecutor looked into $100,000 in payments the city made from its affordable housing trust fund to several city employees — including Inderwies — when Inderwies was city manager. The county prosecutor’s office in October decided not to pursue charges, the site reported.

In the Sentinel’s story, Gordon described the payments as “deeply wrong” and called on the city to take civil action “to recover illegally disbursed funds.”

Gordon applauded the dismissal as “a clear message to all New Jerseyans that free speech will be protected in this state.”

“As a public interest organization, it is Fair Share Housing Center’s job to ensure that our state’s fair housing laws are enforced and that funds designated for affordable housing are used properly, and we have and will continue to speak out to make sure that happens,” Gordon said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the law firm Anselmi & Carvelli represented Gordon pro bono, to defend his free speech rights in what they characterized as a SLAPP suit, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation. State lawmakers recently introduced legislation to shut down such lawsuits, which are intended to stifle conversation or criticism about issues of public concern.

“This should serve as a reminder to all public officials that when you do the people’s business, you should expect your actions to be subject to public criticism,” the ACLU’s legal director, Jeanne LoCicero, said in a statement.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.