A federal judge in Baltimore rejected efforts by the Adam's Mark hotel chain to effectively shut down an NAACP boycott, saying yesterday that the company's injunction request would unfairly restrict free speech about an incident in which there was substantial evidence of racial discrimination.
U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II's ruling was a decisive reaffirmation of the constitutional right to stage boycotts to press for political change, long an effective protest tool for the civil rights group.
Adam's Mark wanted Harvey to issue a preliminary injunction against the NAACP, saying the group's boycott was illegal and had hurt business. Among other things, the company, based in St. Louis, sought 24-hour notice of public statements and restrictions on activities such as picketing.
"Extreme relief of this sort simply is not justified under the facts of this case," Harvey told a courtroom crowded with NAACP supporters. He added that in this case, "the public interest favors the assertion, rather than the suppression, of First Amendment rights."
The ruling stems from a legal fight that began in 1999, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said black students were unfairly singled out as security risks during the annual Black College Reunion held at an Adam's Mark hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The allegations of discrimination eventually led to a class-action settlement in which Adam's Mark officials did not admit any wrongdoing but agreed to pay $8 million. But after a federal judge in Florida refused to approve the settlement, the NAACP renewed its calls last month for a boycott. Adam's Mark fought back with a defamation lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The company alleged that NAACP officials had spread false information about the hotel chain and hurt its business with minority customers.
In court yesterday, company attorney Michael M. Baylson of Philadelphia said Adam's Mark officials were not asking the judge to end the boycott. Baylson said the company wanted only assurances that information released by the NAACP would be factual.
"We are not restricting their ability to speak out, as long as they do so accurately," Baylson said.
Seth D. Berlin, a Washington lawyer representing the civil rights group, which is based in Baltimore, argued that the company's requests would severely restrict the First Amendment rights of NAACP officials and members.
"Who's going to decide what's accurate?" Berlin said. "Are we going to have to submit press releases to the court before we release them?"
Harvey said the hotel chain had not shown that it was harmed or defamed by the NAACP's actions. The judge also said that in reviewing the record from the Florida lawsuits, he found "substantial information" showing that the hotel chain had discriminated against black guests during the reunion weekend - bolstering the NAACP's case for free expression.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume praised the decision, calling it a victory for free speech rights well beyond his group's activities. He said the NAACP will continue its boycott of Adam's Mark until company officials take steps to end all discriminatory practices and publicly apologize for the 1999 Black College Reunion events.
"We will not be intimated; we will not be silenced," Mfume said.
Adam's Mark President Fred S. Kummer shook his head in disbelief after the ruling.
"Obviously, I didn't think this through very well," Kummer said.
"We're going to have to take a hard look at ourselves, and I still think that I would very much like to find a way where we could work more effectively with the NAACP," Kummer said. "The NAACP is not our enemy."