ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney for ex-NRA president and Florida gun rights lobbyist Marion Hammer asked an 11th Circuit panel Wednesday to reinstate her harassment lawsuit against a California attorney who emailed her images of gunshot-wound victims, including President John F. Kennedy, in protest of her lobbying activities.
Arguing on behalf of Hammer, Kenneth Turkel of the Tampa firm Bajo Cuva Cohen & Turkel told a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court that two emails sent by Lawrence Sorensen containing graphic images of mutilated bodies “shouldn’t be tolerated in a civilized society” and urged the court to overturn a federal judge’s ruling dismissing Hammer’s claims.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle threw out Hammer’s intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuit against Sorensen in November 2018, finding the photos attached to the emails were not tortious.
Hinkle, a Bill Clinton appointee, ruled that even though the unsolicited emails were “inappropriate” and “disgusting,” they were not threatening and were “germane to the policy debate that Ms. Hammer regularly participated in and Mr. Sorensen apparently sought to join.”
Hammer — who served as the National Rifle Association’s first female president from 1995 to 1998 and still works as an NRA lobbyist — opposed Florida gun control reforms passed after 17 people died during a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Attorney Thomas Findley of Baker Donelson, who represents Sorensen, told the panel that Hammer’s complaint fails to meet Florida’s “incredibly high standard” for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Findley said that the emails, which were sent five weeks after the Parkland shooting, were not “outrageous” enough to allow Hammer to raise her claims.
The two emails were sent on March 24, 2018, with the subject headings “Assault Rifle Support Results” and “One more instructive photo.”
The body of one email states: “Dear Mrs. Hammer, Thought you should see a few photos of handiwork of the assault rifles you support.” Three photos were attached to the email showing a man in a hospital bed who had suffered a gunshot wound to the thigh.
A graphic photo of President John F. Kennedy’s head after his assassination was attached to another email that included the message: “Dear Marion, This photo documents the effect of an outdated military rifle on JFK. Today’s assault rifles are far more destructive.”
“The pictures are gruesome but sometimes that’s what some people think is useful to convey their point,” Findley said Wednesday.
“Here we’re dealing with a public figure. The plaintiff has acknowledged that she is a well-respected Second Amendment lobbyist and of course that’s a natural place for one that wants to speak about this issue to go,” the attorney added.
But Turkel argued that the district court’s order was contradictory, telling the panel that Hinkel’s statements calling the emails “inappropriate” and “disgusting” mirror the elements necessary for finding that Sorensen had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on Hammer.
U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, inquired whether “something could be gross or disturbing but not utterly intolerable.”
“You could think that something is disgusting and not something that polite people in civilized society do and it not necessarily satisfy the standard of being beyond the pale of decency to support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress,” Pryor said.
In response, Turkel argued that Hammer was “captive in her home” and “forced” to view the emails because they were sent to an email address that she checked at home.
U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum, an appointee of Barack Obama, pointed out that the emails were sent to an address that was publicly available on a Florida lobbyist website “for the purpose of allowing people to know how to contact the lobbyist who tries to influence lawmakers on these topics.”
Although Turkel acknowledged Wednesday that Hammer describes herself as the most well-known lobbyist on behalf of the NRA, he also told the panel that she is a “private actor” and is not “analogous to a legislator who’s got an obligation to open up a conduit to constituents for that dialogue.”
“[Sorensen] has absolutely no right to send a private email to a private person any more than he would have a right to send a private letter to someone with content that they didn’t want intruding in their mail box,” Turkel said.
In rebuttal, Findley told the panel that Hammer is clearly a public figure and that it was natural for someone who wants to speak about gun rights to want to speak to her.
The panel was rounded out by U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, a George H. W. Bush appointee siting by designation from the Southern District of Florida. The judges did not indicate when they would reach a decision in the case.