“DELIVER US FROM EVA.”
Staked at the fringes of George Fishler’s green lawn on a narrow street in the foothills of Mount Olympus, the red and black text sign calls out for attention like a campaign endorsement.
“TROUBLED TEEN MONEY MACHINE,” another wire-legged, bold print sign tells drivers. “BECOME DISABLED FOR ONLY $10,000/MONTH.”
For nearly a decade, these yard signs have been a fixture in front of Fishler’s home, ever since a teen treatment program called Eva Carlston Academy moved in next door despite opposition from the neighbors.
The yard signs, Fishler said in a recent court hearing, are his form of protesting against the business. He doesn’t want the 16-bed program in his neighborhood and all that comes with it — primarily increased traffic and noise from the girls who live next door.
“They ruined my neighborhood,” Fishler testified. “And the only reason this business is in my neighborhood is to make money. All of a sudden, I have cars constantly going by my house every day. And they’re all going there to do one thing: Make money.”
But Kristi Ragsdale, the founder of Eva Carlston Academy, said the neighbor’s behavior is not limited to signs in his yard. He shows her and other staff his middle finger as they drive by, she testified, and hurls derogatory words towards the staff and girls who live there.
Ragsdale eventually sought a stalking injunction against her neighbor, in a case that has now been tied up in the Utah court system for nearly six years. She called his signs “repulsive,” and said his behavior scares her.
“I’m afraid for my safety,” she testified. “I’m afraid for the safety of my coworkers. I’m afraid for the safety of the kids that are in my care. He calls them little b-----s and little whores.”
Is Fishler’s unique form of protest within his rights to free speech — or has it crossed the line into stalking? A Utah judge will soon decide.
Eva Carlston Academy moves in
Ragsdale applied for a business license for Eva Carlston Academy in 2010, opening its first facility in a Tudor-style home on Wasatch Boulevard. The facility caters to girls who are experiencing everything from depression to defiance to eating disorders or low self-esteem, according to its website.
The business expanded to include three separate homes in the years that followed, which included the 2013 purchase of the house that shares a property line with Fishler’s home in the Olympus Cove neighborhood.
Fishler wasn’t the only one protesting, though, when the business moved in. Neighbors listed their concerns in an online petition: They worried about their home values, about traffic and parking issues and whether they would be safe if so-called “troubled” young people were living nearby.
“We pay enormous property taxes in this area and enjoy a safe, quiet, extremely livable neighborhood in return,” one person wrote in the petition, which garnered 223 signatures. “We do not want this project in our neighborhood.”
Ragsdale testified at a recent court hearing that she and her staff tried to do what they could ahead of opening the new house to assure them they would be good neighbors, saying they would encourage employees to drive slowly, to carpool to the home and to help keep the roads clear of snow.
The neighbors’ protest was unsuccessful, and Eva Carlston Academy opened that location in 2013. Not long after, the Fishlers put up those signs.
“We continued our protest,” Fishler’s wife, Sandy, testified, “because having a commercial business at that location affected us. It changed the nature of the neighborhood.”
But several Eva Carlston Academy employees testified in a recent hearing that it’s more than just signs. George Fishler, they said, often flips them off and yells things like “F--- you!” at them as they drive by in white vans with girls inside.
“When you have someone that you’ve done nothing to, you’ve never spoken to, and aggressively and intentionally trying to make you feel uncomfortable — it’s the nature of it. It’s not done in jest,” testified Corrie Norman, the program’s outreach and development director. “He’s angry. Everything about it is aggressive and intended to cause distress and harm. There’s nothing about it that isn’t threatening.”
Police records show officers were called to that Eva Carlston location twice in 2015 for a neighbor dispute. Ragsdale testified that she’s called about Fishler’s behavior on several occasions.
Fishler said he started flipping off Eva Carlston Academy’s vans after one of those interactions with the police. He had asked the officers what actions he could take in protest that would not be a crime.
“They said that I could flip anybody off I want,” he said. ”I could do anything I want on my property that’s not a threat. And so I thought I would start flipping them off if it was okay with the police department.”
Fishler’s wife testified that she also makes those gestures — though she tends not to swear like her spouse.
“I flip them off sometimes,” Sandy Fishler testified. “I generally tend to flip off the vans. The vans are representative of the business and I don’t want to flip anybody off in the wrong car.”
In 2017, Ragsdale sought the stalking injunction — a court order that would require the neighbor to stop contacting or going near the program founder.
“Neither my students nor my coworkers can peacefully go to our home and just exist,” she testified. “We can’t just peacefully drive by our neighborhood without getting accosted and stalked and humiliated by that man. It is so anxiety-provoking and it has gone on way too long.”
Is this stalking?
But a district court judge ruled in 2017 that Ragsdale had not proven that her neighbor’s behavior met the legal definition of stalking.
The judge called Fishler’s behavior “offensive, upsetting, rude” and “abhorrent,” but ruled that it did not amount to stalking.
Ragsdale appealed. And in 2020, the Utah Supreme Court reversed the decision, writing that the district court judge misunderstood the stalking statute and did not apply the correct standard.
To get a stalking injunction in Utah, a person must show that the alleged stalker has done something like followed, threatened or confronted them at least two times in a way that “would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or to be afraid for the person’s own safety or the safety of someone else.”
The high court ruled that the judge who denied Ragsdale’s request for a stalking injunction did not properly assess the impact that Fishler’s conduct could have on a “reasonable person in Ms. Ragsdale’s circumstances,” particularly the impact of his behavior over a several year period.
The justices also decided that the lower court incorrectly denied the injunction on grounds that Fishler’s conduct is “political speech” protected by the First Amendment.
“Although Mr. Fishler is entitled to the protection of the First Amendment,” the opinion reads, “that protection does not exempt him from being enjoined from conduct that meets the definition of stalking.”
That means another 3rd District Court judge, Amber Mettler, will decide if Fishler should be restricted by a stalking injunction.
Ragsdale, Fishler, former residents and Eva Carlston Academy employees all testified over two days in Mettler’s courtroom in May. The judge will rule after hearing arguments from attorneys next month.
Fishler insists that he is not directing his signs or gestures at Ragsdale — but is only protesting her business. He also denies Ragsdale’s assertion that his behavior scares the girls who live there, and his attorney called several former residents who testified that they they didn’t mind him keeping tabs on the house.
One young woman testified she felt “comforted and seen” when she saw his signs, and didn’t feel Fishler was targeting the residents specifically. Another former resident said she posed for photos with Fishler’s sign after she graduated from the program.
“I thought they were iconic,” she said. “They spoke about how I felt about the program.”
Ragsdale said Fishler’s behavior has affected her business — where parents pay $12,900 a month for their daughters to attend — and has caused them to take more safety precautions.
Fishler said he’s cooled off since the Utah Supreme Court issued its ruling in 2020. He said the decision has brought into question if what he was doing violated the law. So he stopped flipping people off and “mouthing at them.”
“I need direction in this,” he testified. “Do I have rights to protest this business? And what are those rights? I just want to follow the law and I want to know what forum I can protest this business. If I’m not allowed to do it from my own property, whose property can I do it on?”