A restaurant in Union County was recently sued by a group of protestors after using photographs of the protestors then altering them without permission to promote their business and show support for all-age drag events being held at the restaurant, according to those in the photos.

The complaint, filed in federal court against East Frank Superette and Kitchen by Sneed PLLC, a law firm based out of Davidson, NC, alleges violations of the federal Lanham Act in US Code Title 15, the privacy-based tort of wrongful appropriation of personal image, and North Carolina’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

In June 2023, seven individuals participated in a group photograph standing outside the Monroe City Council building where a meeting was being held by the council in order to receive comments from the public over whether to define drag queen shows as adult entertainment, thereby prohibiting minors from being allowed to attend the shows. The group held signs stating “Stop grooming children,” along with other messages.

Later, East Frank took the photograph from June as well as subsequent photographs, which were all posted on social media, and altered them without consent in order to promote East Frank’s business, according to the complaint.

Carolina Journal spoke with Michelle Ball, one of the named plaintiffs who participated in the protests. She emphasized that the plaintiffs are not protesting the drag shows at East Frank themselves, only the fact that children are being subjected to them.

“We are not protesting their drag queen shows,” she said. “We have been protesting because they allow children in there and we’ve seen babies, toddlers, and teenagers go in there, and that is really heartbreaking to us. We’ve also been speaking to our city council every month, which began in the spring.”

“My daughter and I and some other faithful protestors have been speaking at the city council hoping that they could do something in our city because of this,” she continued. “We had everybody that had spoken or who was like-minded. Then we all congregated out in front of the city council building and took a picture. East Frank was able to get the picture and use it for their own advertising.”

The lawsuit is being underwritten by the non-profit organization Coalition for Liberty, whose core tenets involve promotion of the rights to freedom of speech, expression, and thought, support for classical apolitical schools, and advocacy for grassroots organizations dedicated to freedom of speech, traditional American values, and better education.

In an emailed statement to CJ, Peter Barwick, who serves as Coalition for Liberty’s general counsel, said the organization became involved with the lawsuit after being contacted by the plaintiffs following the use of their photographs by East Frank.

“Coalition for Liberty was approached by the plaintiffs in this case to see if we could help protect them from the willful misuse of their images by East Frank Superette and Kitchen,” Barwick said. “An important part of our mission as an organization is to push back against the growing blight of cancel culture by holding its practitioners accountable. We were glad to provide assistance, as this situation presents a clear case of illegal behavior that seeks to harm the reputation of the plaintiffs and, on top of that, is vindictive and spiteful towards them. The plaintiffs were simply exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly, and should be able to do that without being subjected to personal attacks that misuse their images to promote East Frank’s business.”

Barwick continued by saying, “The Coalition stands ready to help anyone who finds themselves a target of cancel culture in this way, or who is otherwise defamed or subject to personal attacks in an effort to silence the expression of their views. By holding accountable those who engage in such behavior, we aim to deter and ultimately end cancel culture, and to restore the freedom of every American to speak openly in the public square without fear of being intimidated or maligned.”

Jason Sneed, attorney for the plaintiffs, told CJ in an interview he understands the concerns of those who are troubled by East Frank’s conduct.

“For obvious reasons, the citizens are quite upset by this and several of them reached out directly to the restaurant on social media to ask if they would take down the images, telling them they did not approve of the restaurant’s use of the images to promote the restaurant,” he said. “The restaurant, instead of complying with the reasonable requests to take down the images, essentially laughed it off and taunted them by saying, ‘Look, every time you come on social media and comment, you just increase the visibility of our messages and the algorithms on the social media platforms. So, keep responding to us and keep protesting. It just helps us.’”

He added that the plaintiffs are seeking several avenues of recourse.

“The remedies that we’ve outlined in the complaint include things like monetary relief and injunctive relief, seeking to have the photos taken down and other sorts of monetary and injunctive relief that are available to the plaintiffs,” said Sneed. “We think that the Coalition for Liberty in recruiting us and underwriting the plaintiffs’ costs here aim to deter cancel culture-type activities going forward and further the issues of properly proscribed free speech.”

As previously reported by Queen City News, East Frank believes the complaint is politically motivated.

“We at East Frank agree that this lawsuit to be politically motivated but unfortunately, we are unable to discuss this any further at this time. Thank you for your interest and giving us the opportunity to speak on this,” said East Frank owner and operator Carley Englander.

“Of course not,” Sneed told CJ in response to whether he agreed with East Frank. “It was legally motivated to remedy the violation of rights that our clients have suffered.”