In the lawsuit, filed moments ago in federal court in Florida, the Tea Partiers seek to push back against a bid by Orlando lawyer Fred O'Neal, and his close ally, GOP political consultant Doug Guetzloe, to claim rights to the Tea Party name.
In doing so, the Florida Tea Partiers become just the latest to sound the alarm about what they see as the increasing co-optation of a grassroots movement by political insiders. "We have a very successful movement, similar to the Civil Rights movement, or women's suffrage. And we have a political entity that's trying to take advantage of that," one of the plaintiffs, Everett Wilkinson, told TPMmuckraker in an interview. "They're trying to take that success and momentum and hijack it for their own political and/or personal needs."
In the lawsuit, which was obtained by TPMmuckraker and can be read below, the plaintiffs write that after O'Neal registered TPOF last summer with the Florida Division of Elections, he and Guetzloe "sent threatening letters" -- cited in the suit, and in some cases previously reported by TPMmuckraker -- and "engaged in a campaign to assert intellectual property rights over the phrase 'Tea Party.'"
O'Neal and Guetzloe are prominent Florida anti-tax activists, and O'Neal has said they plan to run third party candidates under the Tea Party banner. O'Neal had had little involvement with the Tea Party movement when he registered TPOF last summer. Guetzloe, who hosts a conservative radio show, has been accused in the past of a string of political dirty tricks -- in some cases with the alleged involvement of O'Neal -- charges Guetzloe denies.
The group of plaintiffs includes Wilkinson, the leader of the South Florida Tea Party, as well as another South Florida Tea Party activist, Tim McClellan (who appears also to have ties to the local GOP). As we've reported, all three men have clashed with O'Neal and Guetzloe over their opposition to TPOF, then received emails from O'Neal pressing them to stop using the Tea Party name.
In the email to Wilkinson, cited in the suit, O'Neal wrote:
If you're not going to talk to me, then you really need to stop using "Florida Tea Party" on your website. Ask your attorney to take a look at Section 865.09, Florida Statutes.
O'Neal's email to a leader of the Naples Tea Party also is cited in the suit. In that one, O'Neal urged Barry Willoughby to "take a look at whether your (City Name) Tea Party needs to get a new name," before citing a Florida law that forbids the unauthorized use of a political party's name." The Naples Tea Party is listed as a plaintiff on the suit.
The plaintiffs ask for a declaratory judgment which would affirm that "[d]efendants do not have exclusive intellectual property rights in the phrase "Tea Party" as used in the political field." And they ask a judge to prohibit O'Neal, Guetzloe, and a third defendant working with them, Nick Egoroff, from representing that their political party is associated with the grassroots Tea Party movement.
O'Neal declined to comment to TPMmuckraker, saying that he hadn't yet seen the lawsuit. He told us last week that in pressing his claim to the Tea Party name, he simply wants people to obey the law.
In an email to TPMmuckraker sent last week, Guetzloe called Wilkinson, who is active with the Tea Party Patriots, "a pathological liar, adding, "a real Tea Party Patriot would not lie, fabricate, distort, mislead and slander others that have been working on these issues for decades." He said he intended to file suit against Wilkinson for slander and libel this week, citing comments Wilkinson has made online about TPOF, Guetzloe, and O'Neal.
Guetzloe also denied that he and O'Neal aimed to co-opt the grassroots energy of the Tea Partiers, describing him and O'Neal as "the anti-hijacker wing of the Tea Party movement."
As we wrote yesterday, the Florida dispute is hardly the only instance of grassroots Tea Partiers voicing the concern that more savvy players are seeking to co-opt the movement for their own ends. the Nashville lawyer organizing the upcoming National Tea Party Convention has been accused of seeking to profit financially from the confab and of wanting to assert control over Tea Partiers nationwide. And the Tea Party Express has been disparaged by members of the Tea Party Patriots as an inauthentic creation of GOP consultants.
Late Update: Guetzloe has responded, charging that the plaintiffs are "backed by well-funded GOP operatives and others bent on the destruction of the tea party movement."
Late Late Update: Here's a copy of the lawsuit:
SFTP v Tea Party