Here are the latest happenings in the formerly esteemed Bethune-Cookman University under the leadership of Board of Trustees Chairman Belvin Perry and his key advisor, Karen Bearden.
- The Daytona Beach-based law firm of Cobb Cole – probably the area's most expensive law firms that has only one woman of color on its staff of partners and associates – is sending out “cease and desist” letters to B-CU alumni who raise questions about the school’s leadership, the university’s current financial condition, and treatment of alumni.
So an HBCU hires an expensive, $300 to $500 per-hour White law firm to “warn” its Black alumni? Does the firm need money so badly that they are willing to besmirch their corporate reputation by sending out bogus letters as a scare tactic? (If you want to see Cobb Cole’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, check out the pictures of the entire firm on their website, https://cobbcole.com/).
- Evidently, the right to free speech no longer exists in B-CU Land. I remind you that with all its problems, this is still America. Criticism of public and private institutions – especially those like B-CU that receive millions of our taxpayer dollars – is in this nation’s constitutional DNA.
- Numerous Cobb Cole cease-and-desist letters accuse various alumni of “intentionally and with malice making defamatory statements about B-CU with the intent to injure B-CU’s name and reputation.” Almost every time Perry speaks publicly, I believe that he injures B-CU’s name and reputation by substantiating the commonly-held belief that he, in contravention of accreditation regulations, is in charge of the university on a day-to-day basis. Does the law firm intend to sue him?
- The cease-and-desist letters also allege that “B-CU’s standing in the community and its business relations with its donors, prospective donors, alumni, students and prospective students has been damaged.” C’mon, man! B-CU’s standing in the community has been on a serious downward slope since the Edison Jackson administration and the multi-million-dollar dorm debacle. If anything, Perry’s leadership has made things worse – something that even the Bethune statue project can’t improve.
- Getting what you pray for – Let’s assume that Cobb Cole does sue an alumnus on behalf of the university. B-CU is a public institution, not a private citizen. The legal standards of defamation are much higher. B-CU will have a hard climb proving legal malice, especially when alumni are criticizing and asking questions about the school because they love it, not hate it. B-CU will blow thousands of dollars on a legal case they can’t win. That’s good only for Cobb Cole.
However, something good may come out of such a legal fiasco. Anyone B-CU sues can ask for production of documents, including financial records B-CU refuses to disclose. Also, Perry, Bearden, and board members will eventually be forced to answer questions under oath, much like Donald Trump’s lawyers and sycophants were forced (under penalty of perjury) to tell the truth to the congressional January 6 commission about Trump’s “Big Lie.”
So go ahead, Chairman Perry. Force Cobb Cole to file the lawsuits. We’ll all be waiting on the video and transcripts of your deposition.
- Here’s something Perry, a longtime lawyer, and Cobb Cole already know.
Florida Statute 57.105 Attorney’s fee; sanctions for raising unsupported claims or defenses...
(1) Upon the court’s initiative or motion of any party, the court shall award a reasonable attorney’s fee... to be paid to the prevailing party in equal amounts by the losing party and the losing party’s attorney on any claim or defense at any time during a civil proceeding or action in which the court finds that the losing party or the losing party’s attorney knew or should have known that a claim or defense when initially presented to the court or at any time before trial:
(a) Was not supported by the material facts necessary to establish the claim or defense; or
(b) Would not be supported by the application of then-existing law to those material facts.
In plain English, it means if Cobb Cole files a defamation suit based on its cease and desist letters and loses, the winning alumni can ask the judge to force B-CU and Cobb Cole to pay his or her attorney’s fees. After that, there’s always the possibility of asking the Florida Bar to sanction Cobb Cole for filing a frivolous lawsuit.
My suggestion? Cobb Cole should either get control of their client or walk away from this foolishness. And if I get a “cease and desist” letter from them, I’ll be happy to see all a ya’ll in court.
Charles W. Cherry II is President & CEO of 623 Management, Inc., an ad agency focused on reach Black Floridians statewide.