Miami attorney with an ‘unparalleled’ commitment to the First Amendment dies at 67

Howard Cohen

From defending First Amendment cases to representing activists against developers — even when the developer is a world-famous soccer player — Richard J. Ovelmen was passionate about the law.

For more than 40 years, Ovelmen practiced constitutional, land use, local government, media, class action and intellectual property law. First Amendment cases were his specialty.

Ovelmen was legal counsel for the Miami Herald when Jim McGee and Tom Fiedler, working with investigative editor James Savage, corroborated a tip that Gary Hart, the Colorado senator who was a Democratic front-runner in the 1988 race for the presidency against George H.W. Bush, was fooling around with a woman on a yacht called Monkey Business. The resultant series of stories led to Hart pulling out of the race.

From the Herald archives: The Gary Hart story: How it happened

He was also active in defamation, trademark and copyright litigation, and fighting for access to government-held information. He was a partner in Carlton Fields and co-chair of the firm’s national appellate and trial support practice from the Miami office.

Ovelmen, who lived in Pinecrest, died Tuesday after a brief illness, his family said. He was 67.

Miami Herald general counsel

“Rick was a key member of The Herald’s investigations team for many years while I was investigations editor,” said Savage. “His job was to clear our final story drafts to ensure they didn’t contain libelous or defamatory statements. My team’s job was to break tough stories about crooks, criminals and power brokers who were cheating the people who looked to the Herald as their champion.

“Rick loved getting involved in our stories to ensure they would survive any legal attack,” said Savage. “The tougher the story, the better Rick liked it. When he clapped his hands together in glee after reading a story, I knew we had a winner. He was always available and eager to clear our stories, sometimes at night just minutes before deadline. The Herald never lost a libel suit during that era.”

First Amendment scholar

Ovelmen, born in La Porte, Indiana, on July 26, 1952, and a Yale Law School graduate in 1978, was a First Amendment scholar.

In a 1991 column for the Miami Herald, Ovelmen detailed the difficulties courts have in deciding such cases.

“Nowhere does the Bill of Rights define ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘freedom of the press.’ It does not define how Congress should not ‘abridge’ these rights. No examples are given. Thus the text of the First Amendment frames the questions, not the answers.”

Ovelmen brilliantly navigated the thorny legal terrain between questions and answers, his peers say.

Ovelmen represented the Herald in a lawsuit brought by a then North Miami councilman, Howard Neu, in 1985. Ovelmen successfully argued for the state of Florida and the Herald that all meetings between public bodies and their lawyers must be held in public under the state’s Sunshine Law.

“Rick was among the very best of the Herald’s universally outstanding lawyers,” said Doug Clifton, a former Herald executive editor. “He was revered and respected by reporters and editors alike. He was a fierce defender of the public’s right to know, an essential quality in prying loose public records from foot-dragging public officials. And, most of all, he believed in the power of newspapers to keep government on the up and up. He will be sorely missed.”

More recently, he represented activist Bruce Matheson in his battles with the Miami Open, the tournament that wanted to expand its stadium footprint in Key Biscayne.

And in Matheson v. Miami-Dade County in 2018, he argued for Matheson in his lawsuit against Miami-Dade County over a $9 million county land deal that sought to sell soccer giant David Beckham and his partners space for a stadium in a no-bid deal in Overtown.

“There is no reason to allow collusive, corrupt, or uncompetitive sales in the name of ‘economic development,’ ” Ovelmen wrote in the brief, the Herald reported. Of Beckham and partners he wrote: “They should have paid a premium for this property rather than insisted on a secret discount from the taxpayers.”

In this file photo from June 6, 2007, attorney Richard J. Ovelmen was at Miami’s Federal Courthouse representing the Miami-Dade County School Board on the “Vamos a Cuba” children’s book case.
In this file photo from June 6, 2007, attorney Richard J. Ovelmen was at Miami’s Federal Courthouse representing the Miami-Dade County School Board on the “Vamos a Cuba” children’s book case.

Carlton Fields’ president and CEO Gary Sasso told the Herald, “This is a tragic loss. Rick was an outstanding lawyer and will be sorely missed.”

A sense of humor

Carlton Fields shareholder Markham Leventhal added, “We were always amazed at how hard Rick worked, and his victories in big complicated cases was legendary. Throughout it all, he never lost his sense of humor. Being on a litigation team with Rick was always a pleasure. He mentored countless lawyers over the years, and his legacy will live on through them.”

But it’s that sense of humor and style some of his colleagues most cherish.

Sam Terilli, the journalism department chair at the University of Miami’s School of Communication and a former general counsel for the Miami Herald Publishing Company who succeeded Ovelmen, remembers a most unusual job interview.

Terilli was about to graduate from the University of Michigan law school in Ann Arbor. Ovelmen had begun his career in the late 1970s as a partner at Paul & Thomson in Miami with celebrated First Amendment lawyers Dan Paul and Parker Thomson.

The firm was looking to add an attorney. Terilli had come to their attention.

Ovelmen flew to Ann Arbor on a brisk November day to interview Terilli, who figured he “was almost certainly going to go to a Wall Street law firm” because that’s what a bright young man from New York with a fresh law degree did in the 1970s.

Terilli expected a formal interview. Instead, in walks Ovelmen in a trench coat, ala Peter Falk from TV’s “Columbo.”

“He does a 10- to 15-minute riff on Miami. He was hysterical. Funny. Engaging. Such a character,” Terilli said. “I was laughing and when he finished he said, ‘So, do you have any questions?’ ”

Terilli got the job at Paul & Thomson.

Terilli recalls another amusing episode during Ovelmen’s run as the Herald’s legal counsel from 1983 to 1988.

“Someone on the Herald’s business management side had written a particularly ill-advised — some might say stupid — internal memo that was destined to surface in litigation at some point and not be helpful. Rick wrote back a memo to senior management that said, ‘I don’t write memos. This is the last and perhaps the only memo you’ll receive from me and I want you to stop writing memos.’

“It was the memo to end all memos,” Terilli said, chuckling. “I don’t think they ever wrote another one.”

Challenging judges

Ovelmen wasn’t above counseling judges he felt had erred, Terilli said. “He was polite. Sitting judges certainly were not receptive to that public criticism — but he pulled it off. The fact he was right saved him.”

Ovelmen was, well, verbose.

“We first met when he was a summer associate at Paul & Thomson in 1976,” said James Spaniolo, Ovelmen’s predecessor as the Herald’s general counsel from 1977 to 1982.

The three — Spaniolo, who later became president of the University of Texas at Arlington, Terilli and Ovelmen — became close friends. In later years, they’d meet over dinners at Joe’s Stone Crab on South Beach to reminisce.

We “loved working with reporters and editors in the Herald newsroom on various matters including pre-publication libel and privacy review, helping gain access to information and records through state and federal laws,” Spaniolo said. “No one could write a better, more persuasive legal brief, especially in First Amendment cases. His belief in, and commitment to, protecting First Amendment rights of the press and public was unparalleled.”

That gift was honed at Paul & Thomson, Spaniolo believes.

“In his early days at the law firm, he was nicknamed ‘the badger’ because he was so relentless in researching and arguing any case in which he was involved. It was easier to agree with Rick, which I did most of the time on the merits, but if you disagreed, he had the capacity to overwhelm you with his long-winded arguments,” Spaniolo said.

“No one would disagree with the fact that he had a brilliant mind and voracious work ethic. He could overwhelm you with both.”

Ovelmen’s survivors include his wife, Nancy, sons Peter and James, and his granddaughter Jane. Details on services are pending.

Ovelmen’s legal career

In addition to his First Amendment cases and work for the Herald, Ovelmen did a wide range of legal work.

Some of his successful Supreme Court, local government and First Amendment cases, according to Carlton Fields:

South Florida Water Management v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians (2004). Co-counsel to the Miccosukee Tribe in its victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the tribe sought to require the South Florida Water Management District to obtain Clear Water Act Permit for pollutants being discharged into the Everglades.

U.S Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (1989). Represented American Newspaper Publishers Association, American Association of Newspaper Editors, and others in U.S. Supreme Court in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case involving public access to FBI “rap sheets.”

Globe Newspapers v. Superior Court (1982). Wrote the brief on behalf of more than 50 national media clients successfully arguing the First Amendment is violated by the automatic exclusion of the press from trial testimony by minor victims of sex crimes.

Club Madonna v. City of Miami Beach (2014, appeal pending). Successful defense of the city and its commissioners challenging the constitutionality of ordinances prohibiting sale of liquor in nude establishments, and asserting violation of First Amendment right of access to the legislative process.

ACLU v. Miami-Dade County School Board (2009). Successful appeal for the school board in infamous “Cuban book ban” case reversing injunction.

Argued on behalf of the Florida Press Association and other media in a landmark case in 1987. Successfully argued the constitutionality of a state sales tax on newspapers, advertising and other services.

Keller v. Miami Herald Publishing Company (1985). Won the right of the press to publish satirical political cartoons in libel action.

Mas Canosa v. New Republic (1995). Successful defense of a major libel suit brought by powerful Cuban American Jorge Mas Canosa with no retraction or correction by the author who had been sued on more than 130 statements published in an article. Mas Canosa’s only victory: The magazine publisher retracted the “cover line.”