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How a confrontation on a Rhode Island beach led to a libel lawsuit — and involvement from the ACLU

Beachgoers take advantage of the weather at Blue Shutters Town Beach in Charlestown, R.I., July 2019. Allegra Anderson/The New York Times

A summertime confrontation on a Rhode Island beach has continued on even long after the warm weather left the Ocean State’s adored coastline.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island indicated recently the organization plans to represent a Pawtucket woman who was sued for libel and trespassing stemming from a run-in with a beachfront property owner in Charlestown, which sits on the state’s southern coast, The Boston Globe reports.

James Marsh filed the lawsuit in August against Sarah McKenna, alleging McKenna’s description of what transpired between the two was libelous.

“The lawsuit, while cast as a defamation/trespass claim, seeks to have a court order Ms. McKenna — who posted statements on an internet discussion board on matters of public concern — to take them down,” Carolyn A. Mannis, McKenna’s lawyer, told the Globe earlier this month in an email. “If successful, this would be a form of censorship, which goes far beyond a monetary award.”

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Here’s what to know about the case:

What McKenna says happened

On June 6, McKenna arrived at the beach in Charlestown with her sister and her 2-year-old son. They set up chairs in an area between a private home and the ocean, but closer to the side with the ocean, according to McKenna, who said she remains convinced she had a right to be there.

Shortly after, a man called from the house.

“Are you aware you’re on my property,” he said.

The man approached her with his two unleashed dogs while her sister left to go to the bathroom, McKenna told the Globe.

The two eventually began to argue and the man called her a “squatter,” McKenna told the newspaper.

She tried to shoo the dogs away, but one grabbed her son’s bagel from her bag, she said. She told police later the man said she would “have a bad day” if she stayed on the beach.

According to the Globe, McKenna called police but they didn’t make it to the beach: Authorities said later McKenna informed them she was at Breachway State Beach. Yet, when asked to be more specific, she said she was about eight houses from the Breachway side and, therefore, police didn’t get the message right away.

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When McKenna’s sister returned, she suggested they leave the beach and they did.

What happened next

A few days later, McKenna’s family reached out to police after being frustrated with a lack of response from the department.

Authorities responded and ultimately identified the man who owns the house on Charlestown Beach Road as Marsh, who lives in Avon, Connecticut.

No charges were filed.

Two months later, McKenna wrote about the incident in a Facebook group for waterfront access advocates, specifically writing that Marsh “assaulted” her, according to the Globe. She included a photo of him used on his company’s website.

Speaking to the Globe, McKenna said she was referring to a verbal assault and added that his dogs’ actions were problematic. She confirmed Marsh did not physically touch her though, the newspaper reports.

Commenters on the post added more information about Marsh’s job.

In court filings, Marsh argues that McKenna is implying he committed a crime even though he did no such thing. Still, McKenna’s “patently false” remarks have negatively impacted his reputation, Marsh said.

“Ms. McKenna has made a series of very personal attacks on Mr. Marsh,” Marsh’s lawyer, Mark Freel, told the Globe in October.

McKenna “crossed a line” and violated Marsh’s rights when she named Marsh’s employer and used his photo in the post, Freel told the newspaper.

What police have said

Records requests yielded a police report that shows authorities located an unnamed source who generally endorsed McKenna’s account and described the situation as “bullying,” the Globe reports.

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In a June email, police Sgt. Christopher Bruso also wrote to McKenna, “He knows that we are on to his behavior, and that this third party confirms to me that although perceptions are different, you weren’t greatly exaggerating anything because you were upset.”

According to the Globe, state courts have determined the line between private property and public beach access is located where the 18.6-year average high tide line is located.

Police said they asked Marsh to identify that area along the Charlestown beach, which he couldn’t do, but he maintained McKenna was on his property, the newspaper reports.

Bruso, however, said the line was near where the sand grade slopes and closer to the water than the seaweed line. He also noted that the point appeared to be closer to one of Marsh’s neighbors than Marsh’s home.

“It would not, in my opinion, be a position where it would be ‘obvious’ or ‘known’ to someone whether or not they were on private or public beach access,” Bruso wrote.

He added, “Concluding this investigation, it is believed that Marsh’s behavior was perhaps uncalled for but falls short of ‘disorderly conduct’ by RI statute as he never threatened [to] harm McKenna or engaged in a fighting or violent or tumultuous behavior.”

Speaking to the Globe, Freel objected to the officer stating his opinion, notably after he determined Marsh committed no crime.

“Once the police department didn’t take any action, that should have been the end of it,” Freel said.

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Freel also noted that the source who supported McKenna’s account was not named. When asked whether “bullying” happened that day, Freel told the newspaper he did not know of a definition of what bullying entailed in that sense.

“I do think there was not an assault. I think the police appropriately chose to take no action here,” Freel said. “I don’t think Mr. Marsh engaged in any inappropriate behavior.”

Freel also said “based upon the information available to us, including from our client and others,” Marsh and his attorneys stand by their decision to sue McKenna for trespassing despite what police said about the mean high tide line.

“Clearly, Mr. Marsh believed she was above the mean high tide mark on that occasion,” Freel said.

What McKenna’s lawyer said

The ACLU will represent McKenna through the dismissal stage of the case, according to the Globe.

Mannis, McKenna’s lawyer, plans to argue the lawsuit should be dropped based on the state’s Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, law.

The law provides individuals with conditional immunity when speaking on issues of the public’s concern, the newspaper reports.

“The issue underlying the confrontation at the beach and later postings by Ms. McKenna — public access to Rhode Island’s coastline and beaches — is a matter of public concern,” Mannis said.

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