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Welcome to today's installment of The Casino Chronicles, fly-and-sledgehammer edition.
The fly: Gambling critic and Plainville, Mass. resident Thomas Keen, who is fighting a proposed racino at the Plainridge Racecourse in Massachusetts.
The sledgehammer: An outrageous defamation suit brought against Keen by the aptly-named Ourway Realty LLC, which owns the track.
The offense: A Facebook post for which Keen is not responsible.
The background: In March, Keen and others set up a website named "No Plainville Racino." Keen registered the site, which hosts your standard anti-gaming fare: Skepticism about the benefits of gambling, worries about traffic and property values, and fears that slots will increase crime in the area. About the same time, fellow opponents created a Facebook page dedicated to their cause. Keen said that while he controls the content of the anti-racino website, he does not control the Facebook page. He said he has never posted anything to Facebook, period.
On March 28, Keen's house was broken into. The marketing manager had a webcam, and gave a picture of the intruder to Plainville police, who posted it on their Facebook page. Somebody shared that post on racino opponents' Facebook page, without comment. Then, some wag posted a joke: "I wonder if they checked over at the racetrack, lol."
A few weeks later, an Ourway attorney threatened to sue Keen for the Facebook post. Citing the "LOL" comment written by somebody else, the attorney accused Keen of defamation for trying to associate the burglary with the racecourse. The attorney demanded that Keen remove the comment and the picture, apologize publicly, and "refrain from posting any similar damaging material ... in the future."
If Keen believes the track had something to do with the break-in, he has never said so publicly. But the racetrack believes the mere presence of that picture on the Facebook page means Keen holds them responsible for the crime. Equally plausible explanations: It was posted to elicit tips for investigators. Or to make a general - hardly earth-shattering - connection between crime and gambling. Keen can't enlighten us, because he didn't post it.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts took up his cause. While noting that the offending joke was deleted, Keen's attorneys warned Ourway that their threats looked like an attempt to shut down public opposition to the racino, which would violate state law and the First Amendment.
Ourway's response? They doubled down, suing Keen, saying the post had held the racecourse up to "ridicule and scorn" in the community, even though the Facebook page had an anemic 84 Likes as of Wednesday evening. Ourway also asserted that the company "suffered and continues to suffer severe economic harm," but cited no examples of that harm.
Still, the lawsuit has shut Keen down. "It has pretty much stopped my advocacy in its tracks," he said. "I'm afraid to do anything now. ... I lie awake at night thinking, 'What does this mean to me and my family?'"
Plainridge Racecourse president Gary Piontkowski vehemently denies trying to stifle dissent.
"We continue to encourage debate," he said. "We have no problem with it. We never have and never will." While the lawsuit seeks triple damages and fees, Piontkowski said yesterday he'd be satisfied if whoever controls the Facebook page just removed the picture.
"Everybody knows the intention was to smear," he said. "Take it down, and I'll go away, and you can have parades and do whatever you want to express your opposition."
This chilling lawsuit is certainly at odds with Piontkowski's professed tolerance. If he persists in pummeling Keen, I think it reasonable to wonder if this is someone who should be granted the huge public trust that comes with a racino license.
He can easily prove me wrong - by putting down the sledgehammer.