Libel lawsuit over RI beach argument ends in settlement

EAST PROVIDENCE, RI – A Rhode Island waterfront property owner who sued a woman for trespassing and dragonfly after a dispute on the beach last summer has dropped his suit after reaching a settlement.

The settlement involves both sides releasing their potential claims, no money changing hands, and the deletion of Facebook posts.

“We reached a resolution which was probably equally distasteful to both parties,” said Carolyn Mannis, an American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island cooperating attorney who represented Sarah McKenna pro bono in the suit brought by James Marsh. “My policy is, a settled case is a won case. She did remove some of her posts, and we go from there. … She’s protected now, and has no more liability hanging over her head.”

Marsh’s lawyers declined to comment beyond confirming that the non-monetary settlement involved both sides dropping any potential claims and McKenna agreeing to delete Facebook posts that Marsh allegedly were defamatory – four, to be exact, attorney Mark Freel said.

Marsh, who owns a home on Charlestown Beach Road, had sued McKenna, a Pawtucket resident, in state Superior Court after an argument on the beach in front of Marsh’s house in June last year.

According to McKenna’s account, she’d gone to the beach with her young son and her sister and set up a chair and a sun shade in the area between Charlestown Town Beach and the breachway state beach. The area was in front of some private homes, but closer to the water than the homes, she said.

Not long after she got there, Marsh, the owner of one of those homes, told her she had to leave, she said. At one point Marsh called her a “squatter,” she said. One of his two unleashed dogs went into her bag and took a bagel that belonged to her son, she said. She called police but due to what turned out to be a miscommunication, they did not arrive. She moved closer to the town beach, she said.

Two months later, McKenna wrote about the incident in a Facebook group that advocates for coastal access, saying Marsh had “assaulted” her. The post included a photo of Marsh from his work page. She later said Marsh didn’t physically make contact with her, but considered his actions a verbal assault, and considered the dogs’ actions problematic.

Marsh, on the other hand, said by claiming he’d assaulted her, McKenna was accusing him of a crime – one he did not commit. That, he alleged in a lawsuit filed in August, was libelous. A police investigation turned up a confidential source who largely supported McKenna’s account, disputed Marsh’s, and described the incident as “bullying.” But the investigation concluded that while Marsh’s behavior was “perhaps uncalled for,” it didn’t rise to the level of disorderly conduct or any other crime. Marsh wasn’t charged.

Marsh’s lawyers say he did not engage in any inappropriate behavior that day.

Notably, Marsh also sued McKenna for trespassing. Under Rhode Island law as it’s enforced now, people have the right to access along the shore below what’s called the mean high tide line. People have private property rights above that line. According to a police report involved in the case, Marsh said he couldn’t point to the police officer exactly where the mean high tide line was – it’s a more complex and scientific measurement than it seems – but felt McKenna was clearly on his property.

McKenna said she had every right to be where she was.

When Marsh sued, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island agreed to defend McKenna for free. The case was officially closed on April 18.

“The First Amendment continues to be an area that needs to be protected, at all costs,” Mannis said Monday.

Brian Amaral can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.

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