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Southern heritage group drops defamation lawsuit against Hillsborough County activists

By Tony Marrero
Save Southern Heritage Florida, a group that fought to prevent the county from moving this Confederate monument from outside the historic County Courthouse in downtown Tampa, has dropped a defamation lawsuit against local activists. [JAMES BORCHUCK/Times files]

TAMPA — A Southern heritage group that fought the removal of a local Confederate monument has dropped its defamation lawsuit against local activists who called the organization a white supremacy group.

Attorneys for Save Southern Heritage Inc. filed notice in Hillsborough County court on Monday that it was voluntarily dropping the suit against Democratic Executive Committee chairwoman Ione Townsend, Organize Florida member Tim Heberlein and a third defendant named Kenneth Copenhaver.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Southern heritage group files defamation lawsuit amid Tampa confederate monument controversy (Sept. 1, 2017)

Save Southern Heritage opted to drop the suit mainly as a result of a ruling in a similar case in Tennessee, said David McCallister, a spokesman and attorney for the group.

In that case, a member of a group called the League of the South sued a woman who called him a white supremacist on Facebook. The local circuit court ruled in favor of the plaintiff but an appeals court reversed the decision.

The case "was similar enough that we thought it would probably be used as precedent and we would have less of a chance of success," McCallister said.

The group also has limited resources and wanted to avoid a lengthy court battle, he said.

The suit stemmed from a bitter battle over the removal of a Confederate monument in front of the historic County Courthouse in downtown Tampa.

In August, Save Southern Heritage posted on its website a dossier containing personal information of people who spoke in favor of the monument’s removal during a County Commission meeting. Townsend released a statement from the Democratic Executive Committee calling the move an intimidation tactic and referring to Save Southern Heritage as a "white supremacist group."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Southern Heritage group draws fire for posting personal information of Confederate statue opponents (Aug. 22, 2017)

Also in August, Organize Florida circulated a petition opposing attorney McCallister’s appointment to the county’s Diversity Advisory Council. The petition was titled "Tell Hillsborough County White Supremacists Don’t Represent Us," and asserted that "white supremacists are still being put in positions of power."

Copenhaver was named in the suit for posting on Facebook a letter encouraging the Temple Terrace Golf and Country to refuse to allow Save Southern Heritage to hold a banquet there because the group "creates fear, encourages seeing those holding different views as ‘enemies’ and justifies violent behavior."

Save Southern Heritage members have denied that its members have white supremacist beliefs.

"We were prepared to vigorously defend ourselves, but no one likes to go through a lawsuit, so we’re happy," Townsend said.

Heberlein called the suit an attempt to use the courts "as a tool to silence our voices."

"A lot of people stepped up and spoke out against the lawsuit and the spirt in which it was filed," Heberlein said. "We know in a system that’s rife with white supremacy, this is one small sliver of what a lot of our community goes through on a daily basis."

A county contractor moved the Confederate monument to storage in September with plans to relocate it to a private Brandon cemetery. Still pending is a lawsuit by save Southern Heritage arguing that the County Commission’s vote for the removal was illegal and unconstitutional.

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.