Newsmax has learned that the Florida Tea Party, a grass-roots conservative affiliated with the national Tea Party Patriots, plans to file a lawsuit Tuesday morning against a group with a similar name that it says is trying to "hijack" the tea party movement.
The suit will be filed in federal court in Miami, said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party. The primary defendants named are Fred O'Neal, an Orlando-area attorney, and the political party that he founded, named the "Tea Party."
"My colleagues and I believe the identity of the Florida Tea Party has been hijacked by cynical forces," Wilkinson told Newsmax in an exclusive interview. "What we're trying to do is make sure the success of the tea party movement is not perverted.
"We look at the tea party movement as similar to the civil rights movement, or any other political movement, such as women's suffrage," Wilkinson said. "It's a movement that transcends beyond politics and political parties, and we did not want to have it being taken advantage of by any political party."
The lawsuit reflects a growing challenge facing the burgeoning tea party groups — a decentralized, nonpartisan democratic movement that is open to anyone but never was designed to be a hierarchical organization under the direction of a single leader. That issue: how to control their own messaging and identity.
That the movement's leaders are willing to take legal action against a faction they believe is distorting the movement's message demonstrates that they stand ready to act when necessary to defend the movement's integrity.
Wilkinson describes O'Neal as a political consultant. O'Neal is allied closely with controversial GOP political consultant Doug Guetzloe, according to Talking Points Memo. Guetzloe is a prominent conservative radio talk host in the Orlando area.
When O'Neal decided in 2009 that he wanted to establish a new political party, he sought a catchy name that would reflect the organization's reduced-taxes agenda.
The tea party movement was exploding at the time, and O'Neal chose Tea Party as his group's name. He calls it the Florida Tea Party because it is based in the Sunshine State.
Unlike other tea party organizations that have blazed a trail into national politics, however, O'Neal's organization is a political party. As such, its presumed objective is to help get certain candidates elected.
Florida requires political parties to register with the Secretary of State's Office. O'Neal filed his paperwork in August.
That was long after the initial tea party rallies in February, the Tax Day Tea Party on April 15, and the July 4 tea party march on the nation's capital.
O'Neal told Newsmax he didn't begin to promote his new political party until November. That was more than six weeks after another key group in the grass-roots tea party movement called The 9/12 Project hosted a rally in Washington.
That O'Neal's organization got its start well after the nonpartisan tea party movement was in full swing is irrelevant under Florida law, O'Neal said. He alleges that Wilkinson's Florida Tea Party is confusing voters because it is using the historic tea party name, although it was doing so before O'Neal's party existed.
O'Neal cites Florida statute 103.081, a law he says gives political parties the right to control their names.
That law, designed to help avoid voter confusion, states: "No person or group of persons shall use the name, abbreviation, or symbol of any political party, the name, abbreviation, or symbol of which is filed with the Department of State, in connection with any club, group, association, or organization of any kind unless approval and permission have been given in writing by the state executive committee of such party."
So O'Neal contends he has the legal right to the Florida Tea Party name instead of the Florida Tea Party group that preceded his and is part of the movement whose success presumably attracted him to the name.
On Monday, O'Neal told Newsmax he is considering some type of action to defend what he sees as his rights to the name.
"We're gonna do something, I'll tell you right now, we're gonna do something. I haven't figured out yet what we're going to do," O'Neal said.
O'Neal said his rights do not appeal to tea party groups outside of the state, because other states do not have requirements for the registration of the names of political parties.
Wilkinson said O'Neal has sent him threatening e-mails regarding use of the Florida Tea Party name. In e-mails, Wilkinson's attorney maintains that O'Neal has made a "false representation of the law."
Wilkinson told Newsmax he believes O'Neal's motivation is primarily financial, an effort to make the tea party movement a political movement rather than the social one it was conceived to be.
The political tea party is "an outside entity that is trying to hijack the movement," Wilkinson said.
Six other tea party-affiliated organizations have joined with the Florida Tea Party in the lawsuit against O'Neal's group.
The suit seeks a declaratory judgment against O'Neal and his party, ordering them "not [to] make any false associations between their political party and any other person or entity that utilizes the phrase tea party in order to confuse the public into believing that the political party is associated with, or otherwise endorsed, or approved by any grass roots movements that utilize the historical phrase “tea party."
It also asks the judge to rule that O'Neal does not have exclusive rights to the "tea party" phrase in the political arena.
O'Neal counters that he wants his rights under Florida law respected. He maintains that the confusion over which organization is the real "Florida Tea Party" is coming from Wilkinson, not from him.
"One of the accusations is, 'He's hijacking the tea party movement,'" O'Neal said. "By no means are we hijacking the tea party movement. We formed a political party. It's a political party, it's not an event organizer, it's not a rally organizer — it's a political party. We're not trying to duplicate what's already been done out there."
That Wilkinson's Florida Tea Party is moving forward with a suit, which is largely intended to clarify that O'Neal is not part of the true tea party movement, sends a signal that tea party leaders are asserting their intention to protect the movement's integrity and nonpartisan nature. In part that requires clearly communicating what the movement is all about, and which leaders are in a position to speak on its behalf.
Wilkinson said he is well aware that the tea party's powerful opponents will use the suit to attack the movement, which has experienced phenomenal growth and the growing pains that naturally go with it.
"We expect the left to use this to say the tea party movement is fragmented, lacks leadership, and they're turning on each other," Wilkinson told Newsmax. "However, we're trying to show there is solidarity behind the actual movement. The individual coordinators that have been planning events and rallies since February 2009 don't want a political party, and certainly not a third party, taking over their movement."
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