Mel Pittel is an unlikely poster boy for First Amendment rights. In his long fight against the board of the Meadow Creek condo complex in Hopkins, Pittel admits that he’s sometimes “crossed the line” — netting him three criminal charges, a restraining order and civil judgments against him totaling more than $460,000.
Yet Pittel now has something else to show for his fight — a ringing defense of his free speech rights from a Hennepin County court referee.
And he may have something else, too: a seat on the condo board that he’s spent the last five years vilifying.
“I have fought as an advocate for fairness and for the owners,” said Pittel, 71. “My basic reason is transparency, accountability and change. People are entitled to the information [about the condo association], and they’re being kept from that information. And I care about the community where I live.”
That community is the largest condo complex in Minnesota, with more than 530 units and more than 1,000 residents.
About five years ago, Pittel became upset at what he considered mismanagement by the condo board. He created three websites that he used to criticize the board and Meadow Creek’s management firm. He showed up at meetings, loudly and at times combatively stating his views.
Eventually, the board got a restraining order that barred Pittel from its meetings for two years. Meanwhile, he dueled in the courts with several board members, with Pittel winding up on the losing side.
Earlier this month, with Pittel’s restraining order about to expire, the condo board sought to extend it for another two years. Pittel fought the board and this time got a strongly worded opinion in his favor from Hennepin County District Court Referee Richard Trachy.
Pittel’s website postings, Trachy wrote, “were often unpleasant and offensive to their targets, who quite reasonably felt unhappy about what he said.”
But even offensive and upsetting speech is protected by the First Amendment, he wrote.
“Even before our Constitution was formed, men and women offended other men and women, and efforts to quiet criticism often enlisted the power of government to compel silence,” Trachy wrote. “Freedom of speech is perhaps the foremost of our cherished freedoms. Hence its inclusion in the First Amendment.”
Attorneys for Meadow Creek and representatives of its management firm declined to comment.
Now that the court has upheld Pittel’s freedom to criticize the condo board, his next step is to see if he can join it.
He was actually elected to the board a year ago, but couldn’t attend meetings because of the restraining order. There’s some question about whether he’s still a member or whether he was replaced along the way.
“They put me on [the board]. Why should I have to prove that I’m right?” Pittel said. “Let them prove that I’m wrong.”
Board President Enrique Torrano did not return calls for comment.