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Blaine and Sally Rhodes were far from flattered to find a picture of their home on display at Sewall’s Point Town Hall in Florida. “Our View of the Hillbilly Hellhole” read the caption under the 8 x 10 photo of the couple’s waterfront home in Martin County north of West Palm Beach. The picture showed a floating dock hanging from davits in the couple’s backyard. The foam on the bottom of the dock was covered in algae and barnacles. There were silver pie tins hanging from their trees and fencing materials lying in piles. Jann Levin, who lived across the canal from the Rhodeses, did not appreciate the view. After years of squabbling with the couple over what Levin said was the Rhodeses’ poor home maintenance, she snapped a photo of the scene, put it in a frame decorated with gold leaf laminate and presented it to town officials as a Christmas gift in 1998. Town Clerk Joan Barrow and Mayor Donald Winer put it on the front counter for display. The Rhodeses sued Levin and the town officials for defamation. Levin settled with the couple for an undisclosed amount. But the town officials proceeded to trial. In February 2002, a Martin County jury awarded the Rhodeses $50,000 for their pain and suffering. “How would you like it if someone took a picture of your house and called it a hellhole?” asked Sally Rhodes, who had lived with her husband in the exclusive community since 1974. The dock was only out of the water for four days to dry out after a storm, Rhodes said. And the pie tins were there to ward off crows. “There are no hillbilly hellholes in Sewall’s Point,” added the Rhodeses’ attorney, Virginia Sherlock of Littman Sherlock & Heims in Stuart. “These are million-dollar homes.” But the 4th District Court of Appeal did not share the Rhodeses’ outrage. Last month, a three-judge panel threw out the $50,000 award. The panel held that the couple could not sue the town for defamation because Levin’s caption on the photo displayed at Town Hall, “hillbilly hellhole,” was an expression of pure opinion that was protected by the First Amendment. Viewers could look at the photo and judge for themselves whether the couple’s backyard was an eyesore. “If you express an opinion about someone and you disclose the facts upon which your opinion is based, you can’t be sued for slander,” said the town’s lawyer, Michael Piper of Johnson Anselmo Murdoch Burke & George in Fort Lauderdale. But Sally Rhodes said the appellate ruling shows a flaw in the U.S. Constitution. “Under the First Amendment, you can say anything you want about anybody as long as it’s your opinion,” she said, extrapolating from the 4th DCA opinion. “I think [the First Amendment] needs to be revised.”

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