By Mary Thurwachter
Kem Mason has had it with the hateful speech found on social media and directed at local public officials. During the Jan. 9 Town Council meeting, the first-term council member aimed his remarks at some postings on a private Facebook group called Lantana Raw.
His outburst was fueled by a comment made on the group’s page about using “a vat of sulfuric acid” on an anonymous elected official, who the page’s administrator Catherine Phillips said was stalking her.
In a complaint she filed with police, Phillips said she thought council member Mark Zeitler was stalking her because he drove by her home and remained at the stop sign near her house longer than needed before making a turn.
Mason decried the social media posts, saying “an attack against one town official is an attack against all of us,” but Vice Mayor Lynn “Doc” Moorhouse said he for one didn’t need anyone’s help in being shielded from such attacks.
“I appreciate how you feel, I feel the same way, and there’s no need to protect me, I protect me,” Moorhouse told Mason. “I’ve been trashed for so many years, I’m good. I can take care of me.”
Mason decided to speak out after a concerned citizen brought him a copy of the posts, which he shared by displaying them on a video screen. Zeitler — who at the time had not been publicly identified as the subject — said he would refrain from commenting beyond what Mason said.
Phillips wrote that she was experiencing “creepy behavior” from an unnamed elected official and so was her friend.
Underneath this statement was a picture of a person in a black hoodie with no face, but where the face would be is printed “stalker” in bold red letters.
“The next screen shot shows a comment from Chris Rodgers, one of the 2,600 followers of Lantana Raw, who wrote ‘hmmmm, not good,’” Mason read. “Ms. Phillips says, ‘nope, need you here to show him who’s the boss.’
“Rodgers wrote, ‘A vat of sulfuric acid would work.’ And Phillips replied: ‘True.’
“Instead of discouraging the comment, she supports his suggestion of an act of violence against a Town Council member,” Mason said.
Mason said Phillips has a history of making defamatory remarks about elected officials.
“You’ve called me a liar, a bully and a cheat, along with implying I was taking money for the Kmart project,” he said.
Mason ignored the comments, hoping they would pass, he said, “but now you have gone too far by encouraging harm against an elected official.”
In 2018, Phillips accused former Mayor Dave Stewart of misusing his position to obtain a sexual benefit for himself and soliciting sex from a constituent based on an understanding that his vote, official action or judgment would be influenced. A Florida Commission on Ethics judge found Stewart did not violate ethics law and threw out the claim.
Town or personal issue?
Mason asked Phillips to stop posting such things, “because these claims are nothing to be cavalier about. It hurts a person’s reputation and creates doubt in the people’s minds about their public officials.”
Phillips, contacted by The Coastal Star after the meeting, criticized Mason for attacking her right of free speech.
“I find it very scary and disturbing that an elected official is not representing truths about private citizens such as myself,” she wrote in an emailed response. “Mr. Mason was elected as a Councilman to make policy decisions that affect Lantana and not to use his position as a pulpit to bully constituents.”
At the meeting, Moorhouse, who said he was unaware of the postings and is a friend of Phillips, questioned whether addressing social media issues from the dais was appropriate. “Is it taking advantage of our official position for personal defense?” he asked Town Attorney Max Lohman.
“That’s really not for me to say,” Lohman said. “We could have different opinions on it, it’s not really a legal question. If it were a matter of decorum, it’d be different.”
“This is just a ‘he said, she said’ and goes on and on,” Moorhouse said.
Lohman said this wasn’t so much a legal issue as a personal issue to be dealt with by each council member. He said people could argue on whether it was beneficial to address.
“I know it’s difficult to have things posted about you on social media and spread around, especially things that are not true,” he said. “That’s hurtful and it’s hard to swallow. I think each person is going to have to deal with it differently. As a council, you could come up with a policy on how you’re going to deal with it as a body. But it still wouldn’t prevent the individual from choosing to address it.
“The standard and the bar for proving defamation or slander for public officials, or someone who is in the public eye, is much higher than it is for regular citizens,” Lohman said. “When you bring the tort of defamation or slander or libel, you typically have to show actual damages.”
He said it is always very challenging “when it’s something like this, it isn’t necessarily about the way anybody’s doing their job up here, it’s an ad hominem attack. There’s really no legal position on it because each one of you has the right and the ability to say what you’re going to say …and we can agree to disagree on whether it’s wise or not wise to.”
Mason and Zeitler had filed a police report on the postings and police did speak with Phillips.
As for her stalking complaint, police talked to Phillips and said they couldn’t stop someone from driving on the streets of town.
Phillips previously lodged a complaint against Zeitler during the 2021 mayoral election, saying he threw down a political sign for the candidate she supported, former Mayor Robert Hagerty. That complaint was dismissed after Hagerty chose not to pursue it.
The Facebook posting referring to sulfuric acid has been removed from Lantana Raw, although Phillips told police she didn’t know who took it down. The site lists one other administrator and two content moderators.
Mason wasn’t backing down.
“She went over the line with the sulfuric acid posting,” he said. “That’s a real threat, a serious offense. I’m letting you all know that I’m not taking it. I’m taking something that’s in the dark behind a keyboard and bringing it in the light. And, if you’re going to say things about me, it’s going right up there on the screen, every single time. I’m done with this.”
In other news, Town Manager Brian Raducci announced that a ribbon cutting for the remodeled library is scheduled for 11 a.m. Feb. 22 at the library, 205 W. Ocean Ave. A community celebration will begin at noon March 11 with food trucks, story times and other children’s activities.
With the rise of social media you also have a rise of seeing how many people are untreated for their mental illnesses.
How amazing that Catherine Phillips cries about being called out on her post making a false accusation, defaming an elected official and agreeing with someone suggesting attempted murder as a result of her false accusation. But when someone calls her out in public for her actions then that is "attacking her right of free speech"?