Companies have an absolute right to petition the government by speaking at zoning meetings, and that right insulates it from a lawsuit, the North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.
Cheryl Lloyd Humphrey Land Investment Co. (“plaintiff”) sued Resco Products, Inc. and Piedmont Materials Co., Inc. (“defendants”) after the defendants made statements at public zoning hearings in the Town of Hillsborough, N.C.
The defendants opposed a plan by plaintiff to purchase and develop residential units at Enoe Mountain Village, an area located next to the defendants’ open-quarry mine. The defendants testified that they regularly conduct blasting at their mine that would likely make too much noise and possibly damage nearby residential units.
Plaintiff asserted that such statements caused a third party, Braddock Park, not to purchase EMV. Plaintiff sued defendants for interference with prospective business relations, contending that defendants made false and malicious statements that caused the purchase to fail.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that their statements at the public hearing were protected by the First Amendment. A trial granted the motion to dismiss, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that the statements made by defendants were sufficient to state a claim for interference with prospective business relations.
Defendants then appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which reversed in its June 11, 2021, opinion in Cheryl Lloyd Humphrey Land Inv. Co. v. Resco Prods.
The state’s highest court wrote that “the right to petition protects efforts to influence the actions of government officials, whether in the legislative, executive, or judicial branch.”
Furthermore, the state high court explained that “[p]roteching the right to petition requires early dismissal of lawsuits that impermissibly seek to infringe on the right and thus chill petitioning activity occurring in these political contexts.”
The plaintiff had asserted that defendants made their statements at the zoning hearing with malice, knowing they were false. However, the state Supreme Court said that did not matter, because the right to petition was paramount. Instead of suing, the plaintiff should counter those statements in the political process.
“The right to petition the government is a fundamental right,” the court concluded. “Here defendants’ testimony during the public zoning process constitutes petitioning activity. Because early dismissal is necessary to protect the exercise of this fundamental right, the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s lawsuit.”
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David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech(2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).