Is this free speech – or stalking?


Posted at the edges of George Fishler’s green lawn on a narrow street in the foothills of Mount Olympus, the red and black text signage calls for attention like a campaign endorsement.

“TROUBLED TEEN MONEY MACHINE,” another wire-legged bold sign tells drivers. “GET DISABLED FOR ONLY $10,000/MONTH.”

These yard signs have been a fixture outside Fishler’s home for nearly a decade, ever since a teen treatment program called Eva Carlston Academy moved in next door despite opposition from neighbors.

The yard signs, Fishler said in a recent court hearing, were his way of protesting the deal. He doesn’t want the 16-bed program and everything that goes with it in his neighborhood – especially more traffic and noise from the girls who live next door.

“They ruined my neighborhood,” Fishler testified. “And the only reason this business is in my neighborhood is to make money. Suddenly, cars drive past my house every day. And they all go there to do one thing: make money.”

But Kristi Ragsdale, the founder of Eva Carlston Academy, said the neighbor’s behavior wasn’t limited to signs in his garden. He gives her and other employees his middle finger as he drives past, she testified, and hurls derogatory words at the employees and girls who live there.

Ragsdale eventually sought a stalking injunction in a case that has now tangled in the Utah court system for nearly six years. She called his signs “disgusting” and said his behavior scared her.

“I’m afraid for my safety,” she testified. “I fear for the safety of my colleagues. I fear for the safety of the children in my care. He calls them little B—–s and little whores.”

Is Fishler’s unique form of protest within his right to free speech – or has he crossed the line into stalking? A judge in Utah will rule soon.

The Eva Carlston Academy moves in

Ragsdale applied for a business license for Eva Carlston Academy in 2010 and opened its first facility in a Tudor-style house on Wasatch Boulevard. The facility caters to girls who, according to their website, are experiencing everything from depression to defiance to eating disorders or low self-esteem.

The business expanded to three separate homes over the following years, including the 2013 purchase of the home that shares a property line with Fishler’s home in the Olympus Cove neighborhood.

Fishler wasn’t the only one to protest when the store moved in, however. Neighbors raised their concerns in an online petition: They worried about their home values, about traffic and parking problems, and whether they would be safe if so-called “problems” arose. “Young people lived nearby.

“We pay huge property taxes in this area in exchange for a safe, quiet and highly livable neighborhood,” wrote one person on the petition, which received 223 signatures. “We don’t want this project in our neighborhood.”

Ragsdale testified at a recent court hearing that before the new home opened, she and her staff tried to do everything in their power to reassure them that they would be good neighbors and said they would encourage staff to drive slowly, carpool to the house and help keep the roads snow-free.

Neighbor protests were unsuccessful, and the Eva Carlston Academy opened this location in 2013. Not long after, the Fishlers put up these signs.

“We continued our protest,” Fishler’s wife Sandy testified, “because having a commercial business in that location affected us. It changed the character of the neighborhood.”

But several employees at Eva Carlston Academy testified in a recent hearing that it’s about more than just characters. George Fishler, they said, often turns them off and yells things like “F— you!” at them when they drive by in white vans with girls in them.

“When you have someone you haven’t done anything to, who you’ve never spoken to, who is aggressively and intentionally trying to make you feel uncomfortable — that’s the nature of things. It’s no joke,” said Corrie Norman, the program’s director of public relations and development. “He’s angered. Everything about it is aggressive and designed to cause harm and harm. There’s nothing about it that isn’t threatening.”

Police records show that officers were called to this Eva Carlston location twice in 2015 over a neighborhood dispute. Ragsdale testified that she was called several times about Fishler’s behavior.

Fishler said he began shutting down Eva Carlston Academy’s vans after one of those interactions with police. He had asked officers what actions he could take in protest that would not constitute a crime.

“They said I could flip anyone I want,” he said. “I could do whatever I want on my property, it’s not a threat. And so I figured I’ll start taking them out if it’s okay with the police.”

Fishler’s wife testified that she also makes these gestures — although she tends not to swear like her spouse.

“Sometimes I turn them off,” Sandy Fishler said. “I tend to turn off the vans in general. The vans are representative of the business and I don’t want to scare anyone off with the wrong car.”

In 2017, Ragsdale filed for the stalking injunction — a court order that would order the neighbor to cease contact with or approach the program’s founder.

“Neither my students nor my colleagues can go to our homes peacefully and just exist,” she testified. “We can’t just drive past our neighborhood peacefully without being accosted, stalked and humiliated by this man. It’s so scary and it’s been taking way too long.”

Is this stalking?

But a district court judge ruled in 2017 that Ragsdale had failed to prove her neighbor’s behavior met the legal definition of stalking.

The judge called Fishler’s behavior “offensive, disturbing, rude” and “disgusting” but ruled it did not amount to stalking.

Ragsdale appealed. And in 2020, the Utah Supreme Court reversed the decision, writing that the district court judge misunderstood the stalking statute and failed to apply the proper standard.

To obtain a restraining order for stalking in Utah, a person must show that the alleged stalker stalked, threatened, or confronted them on at least two occasions in a way that “a reasonable person would experience emotional distress or fear for their own safety or security.” another person.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the judge who denied Ragsdale’s request for a stalking injunction failed to properly assess the impact Fishler’s behavior might have on a “reasonable person by Ms. Ragsdale’s standards,” specifically the impact of his behavior over a period of several years.

The judges also ruled that the lower court erroneously denied the injunction on the basis that Fishler’s conduct was “political speech” protected by the First Amendment.

“Although Mr. Fishler is entitled to the protections of the First Amendment,” the opinion states, “those protections do not exempt him from being prohibited from conduct that meets the definition of stalking.”

That means another 3rd Circuit Judge, Amber Mettler, will decide whether Fishler should be restricted by a stalking injunction.

Ragsdale, Fishler, former residents and employees of Eva Carlston Academy testified in Mettler’s courtroom for two days in May. The judge will decide after hearing arguments from lawyers over the next month.

Fishler insists he isn’t directing his signs or gestures at Ragsdale – just protesting their business. He also disputes Ragsdale’s claims that his behavior scares the girls who live there, and his attorney called several former residents who said they didn’t mind him patrolling the home.

One young woman said she felt “comforted and seen” when she saw his signs and didn’t feel Fishler was specifically targeting residents. Another former resident said she posed for photos with Fishler’s mark after completing the program.

“I thought they were iconic,” she said. “They talked about how I felt about the program.”

Ragsdale said Fishler’s behavior has impacted her business – where parents pay $12,900 a month for their daughters to attend – prompting her to take more safety precautions.

Fishler said he has calmed down since the Utah Supreme Court issued its ruling in 2020. He said the decision called into question whether what he was doing was against the law. So he stopped tricking people and “calling names at them.”

“I need guidance here,” he testified. “Do I have the right to protest this deal? And what are these rights? I just want to follow the law and I want to know on which forum I can protest this business. If I can’t do it from my own property, whose property can I do it on?” Is this free speech – or stalking?

Joel McCord

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