Category Archives: Defamation

The “Tennessee Public Participation Act”⁠—Tennessee’s First-Ever Meaningful Anti-SLAPP Law⁠—Takes Effect Today

By Tennessee First Amendment, Speech Defense, and Anti-SLAPP Lawyer Daniel Horwitz:

If you woke up this morning feeling freer to speak your mind, there’s a reason: A little-noticed law with huge free speech benefits takes effect today. As of July 1, 2019, the “Tennessee Public Participation Act”—Tennessee’s first-ever meaningful Anti-SLAPP law—became effective and affords those who are sued for their speech a host of critical legal benefits.

Because litigation is often prohibitively expensive, bad actors can often intimidate critics into silence by threatening or filing baseless speech-based lawsuits asserting claims like defamation (libel or slander), false light invasion of privacy, business disparagement, or other questionable torts. When faced with the prospect of having to spend tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend one’s legal right, for instance, to leave an unfavorable review of a business, self-censorship can also become an extremely attractive proposition. The result of such self-censorship is to undermine both individuals’ right to free speech and the public’s right to hear and receive information.

It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of defamation and other speech-based lawsuits are not filed because a person has suffered an actual legal injury. Instead, their purpose is to punish people for lawfully exercising their right to speak freely about a topic that the suing plaintiff wants to censor. Given the cost of litigation, historically, such lawsuits have also been disturbingly effective.

To provide a counterbalance to the financial threat posed by bogus defamation lawsuits, laws aimed at deterring “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (Anti-SLAPP laws) afford speakers a number of significant legal protections, all of which are critical to safeguarding free speech and promoting the free exchange of information and ideas. First, Anti-SLAPP laws help deter bad actors from filing baseless lawsuits against people for lawfully exercising their free speech rights in the first place. Second, the best Anti-SLAPP laws provide people who are sued for exercising their First Amendment rights an efficient and expeditious means of getting frivolous speech-based lawsuits dismissed quickly. Third, Anti-SLAPP laws commonly provide a mechanism to punish abusive litigants and attorneys who file baseless defamation claims with significant monetary sanctions. Fourth, Anti-SLAPP laws frequently give people who are sued for exercising their free speech rights the right to recoup whatever attorney’s fees and court costs they incurred for having to defend against a meritless speech-based lawsuit.

Happily, beginning today, Tennessee now boasts an Anti-SLAPP law that affords speakers all of these benefits. Until today, Tennessee only had a limited Anti-SLAPP law that was narrowly restricted to statements made to government agencies.  Fortunately, though, earlier this year, Tennessee enacted the “Tennessee Public Participation Act” to protect Tennesseans’ right to free speech, which became effective July 1, 2019.  Thus, from today onward, the Randy Rayburns and Linda Schipanis and Bari Hardins of the world can now wield a powerful protective weapon against bad actors’ efforts to censor and intimidate them through frivolous speech-based lawsuits.

The Tennessee Public Participation Act has dramatically expanded the scope of speech that receives heightened legal protection in Tennessee. Under the Act, every “communication made in connection with a matter of public concern”—a term that is defined broadly and expressly encompasses statements involving issues of “health or safety” and “community well-being”—”that falls within the protection of the United States Constitution or the Tennessee Constitution” will come within the ambit of the law’s protection. In other words: Most statements made by citizens within the State of Tennessee—including social media posts and blog posts—now receive heightened protection against speech-based lawsuits, including defamation lawsuits, false light invasion of privacy lawsuits, or lawsuits that assert claims such as “defamation by implication or innuendo.”  Defendants who are sued for claims such as “abuse of process” or “malicious prosecution” will frequently enjoy heightened protection under the Tennessee Public Participation Act as well.

Censorship has always been rampant, and it comes in many forms—from firing people who speak out about misconduct in the workplace to libel and slander lawsuits. More than anything, in recent years, the permanence of the internet combined with the reach and speed of social media have made it more attractive than ever to try to censor others through the legal system before harmful information—whether accurate or not—reaches every corner of cyberspace. The good news is that the Tennessee Public Participation Act will now afford significant protection to people who speak out about topics like abuse and other important issues. The text of the law appears below.

The Tennessee Public Participation Act (Effective July 1, 2019):

20-17-101. This chapter shall be known and may be cited as the “Tennessee
Public Participation Act.”

20-17-102. The purpose of this chapter is to encourage and safeguard the
constitutional rights of persons to petition, to speak freely, to associate freely, and to participate in government to the fullest extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of persons to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury. This chapter is consistent with and necessary to implement the rights protected by Article I, §§ 19 and 23, of the Constitution of Tennessee, as well as by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and shall be construed broadly to effectuate its purposes and intent.

20-17-103. As used in this chapter:

(1) “Communication” means the making or submitting of a statement or document in any form or medium, including oral, written, audiovisual, or electronic;

(2) “Exercise of the right of association” means exercise of the constitutional right to join together to take collective action on a matter of public concern that falls within the protection of the United States Constitution or the Tennessee Constitution;

(3) “Exercise of the right of free speech” means a communication made
in connection with a matter of public concern or religious expression that falls within the protection of the United States Constitution or the Tennessee Constitution;

(4) “Exercise of the right to petition” means a communication that falls
within the protection of the United States Constitution or the Tennessee Constitution and:

(A) Is intended to encourage consideration or review of an issue
by a federal, state, or local legislative, executive, judicial, or other
governmental body; or

(B) Is intended to enlist public participation in an effort to effect
consideration of an issue by a federal, state, or local legislative,
executive, judicial, or other governmental body;

(5) “Legal action” means a claim, cause of action, petition, cross-claim, or counterclaim or any request for legal or equitable relief initiated against a private party;

(6) “Matter of public concern” includes an issue related to:

(A) Health or safety;

(B) Environmental, economic, or community well-being;

(C) The government;

(D) A public official or public figure;

(E) A good, product, or service in the marketplace;

(F) A literary, musical, artistic, political, theatrical, or audiovisual
work; or

(G) Any other matter deemed by a court to involve a matter of
public concern; and

(7) “Party” does not include a governmental entity, agency, or employee.

20-17-104.

(a) If a legal action is filed in response to a party’s exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association, that party may petition the court to dismiss the legal action.

(b) Such a petition may be filed within sixty (60) calendar days from the date of service of the legal action or, in the court’s discretion, at any later time that the court deems proper.

(c) A response to the petition, including any opposing affidavits, may be served and filed by the opposing party no less than five (5) days before the hearing or, in the court’s discretion, at any earlier time that the court deems proper.

(d) All discovery in the legal action is stayed upon the filing of a petition under this section. The stay of discovery remains in effect until the entry of an order ruling on the petition. The court may allow specified and limited discovery relevant to the petition upon a showing of good cause.

20-17-105.

(a) The petitioning party has the burden of making a prima facie case
that a legal action against the petitioning party is based on, relates to, or is in response to that party’s exercise of the right to free speech, right to petition, or right of association.

(b) If the petitioning party meets this burden, the court shall dismiss the legal action unless the responding party establishes a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in the legal action.

(c) Notwithstanding subsection (b), the court shall dismiss the legal
action if the petitioning party establishes a valid defense to the claims in the legal action.

(d) The court may base its decision on supporting and opposing sworn
affidavits stating admissible evidence upon which the liability or defense is based and on other admissible evidence presented by the parties.

(e) If the court dismisses a legal action pursuant to a petition filed under this chapter, the legal action or the challenged claim is dismissed with prejudice.

(f) If the court determines the responding party established a likelihood of prevailing on a claim:

(1) The fact that the court made that determination and the
substance of the determination may not be admitted into evidence later in
the case; and

(2) The determination does not affect the burden or standard of
proof in the proceeding.

20-17-106. The court’s order dismissing or refusing to dismiss a legal action
pursuant to a petition filed under this chapter is immediately appealable as a matter of right to the court of appeals. The Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure applicable to appeals as a matter of right governs such appeals.

20-17-107.

(a) If the court dismisses a legal action pursuant to a petition filed under this chapter, the court shall award to the petitioning party:

(1) Court costs, reasonable attorney’s fees, discretionary costs,
and other expenses incurred in filing and prevailing upon the petition; and

(2) Any additional relief, including sanctions, that the court
determines necessary to deter repetition of the conduct by the party who brought the legal action or by others similarly situated.

(b) If the court finds that a petition filed under this chapter was frivolous or was filed solely for the purpose of unnecessary delay, and makes specific written findings and conclusions establishing such finding, the court may award to the responding party court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in opposing the petition.

20-17-108.  Nothing in this chapter:

(1) Applies to an enforcement action that is brought in the name of the
state or a political subdivision of this state by the attorney general, a district attorney general, or a county or municipal attorney;
(2) Can result in findings or determinations that are admissible in
evidence at any later stage of the underlying legal action or in any subsequent legal action;
(3) Affects or limits the authority of a court to award sanctions, costs,
attorney’s fees, or any other relief available under any other statute, court rule, or other authority;
(4) Affects, limits, or precludes the right of any party to assert any
defense, remedy, immunity, or privilege otherwise authorized by law;
(5) Affects the substantive law governing any asserted claim;
(6) Creates a private right of action; or
(7) Creates any cause of action for any government entity, agency, or
employee.

20-17-109. This chapter is intended to provide an additional substantive remedy to protect the constitutional rights of parties and to supplement any remedies which are otherwise available to those parties under common law, statutory law, or constitutional law or under the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.

20-17-110. If any provision of this chapter or the application thereof to any
person or circumstance is held invalid, such invalidity shall not affect other provisions or applications of this act that can be given effect without the invalid provision or application, and to that end the provisions of this act are declared to be severable.

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Individual Rights Are Expanding In Tennessee

By Daniel A. Horwitz

The past week has been an excellent one for individual rights in Tennessee, with improvements coming in several independent areas:

First, the Tennessee General Assembly has passed the State’s first meaningful anti-SLAPP law to protect Tennesseans’ right to free speech. The reform will instantly have the effect of deterring people from filing baseless lawsuits aimed at censoring critical commentary and severely punishing people who do. Thus, effective July 1, 2019, the Randy Rayburns and Linda Schipanis and Bari Hardins of the world will be able to wield a powerful protective weapon against foolish bad actors’ efforts to censor and intimidate them through frivolous, failed lawsuits.

Second, following a 2017 lawsuit to terminate a White County, Tennessee inmate sterilization program, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that sterilization-for-sentencing-credits arrangements like White County’s are illegal. “Requiring inmates to waive a fundamental right to obtain a government benefit impermissibly burdens that right” in contravention of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court’s opinion reads. “This decision sends a clear, important message that should never have been necessary in the first place: Inmate sterilization is illegal and unconstitutional,” the inmates’ attorney, Daniel Horwitz (the author), said in a statement to The Tennessean on the ruling.

Third, the Tennessee General Assembly passed one of Governor Bill Lee’s central legislative priorities—a substantial reduction in the current expungement fee that the state assesses people for the privilege of expunging convictions and diverted offenses on their criminal records. Tennessee’s expungement law, which enables people to expunge up to two qualifying convictions, provides an extraordinarily important mechanism for people to move on from an interaction with the criminal justice system and eliminate their criminal record history such that—as a matter of law—it “never occurred.” Although the reform does not wholly eliminate all applicable expungement fees, it reduces the total fee that people will have to pay to expunge a conviction or diversion from $280 to $100 going forward.

These important reforms each move individual rights in the right direction. They reduce private litigants’ ability to abuse the legal process, they curtail the government’s power to infringe upon people’s constitutional rights, and they help ensure that people will not suffer a life sentence for minor criminal convictions solely because they lack the ability to pay a few hundred dollars to expunge their qualifying convictions. Hopefully, progress like this is only a beginning.

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Tennessee Supreme Court Strengthens Protections for Journalists’ Fair Report Privilege; Rules on Source Protection Law

By Daniel A. Horwitz

In a unanimous, twenty-page opinion released earlier this afternoon, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on a pair of critical issues affecting newsgathering in Tennessee.  The Court’s ruling strengthens protections for the “fair report” privilege—a legal defense that protects journalists from liability for allegedly defamatory news articles—while at least arguably undercutting Tennessee’s “Shield Law,” which enables journalists to protect their sources.  The Court’s opinion, authored by Justice Cornelia Clark, is accessible here.

The first and central holding of the Court’s opinion is that no claim of “malice”—either an express motive to harm another or simply reckless reporting—can overcome the fair report privilege afforded to news media.  “We hold that neither express malice nor actual malice can defeat the fair report privilege,” the Court’s opinion reads.  “The privilege can only be defeated by showing that a report about an official action or proceeding was unfair or inaccurate.”  Because the overwhelming majority of defamation lawsuits are baseless, the Court’s opinion significantly strengthens protections for journalists that could otherwise be eviscerated through creative or fanciful pleading.

On the other hand, however, the Court held that a journalist’s invocation of the fair report privilege necessarily “triggers the exception to the shield law in Tennessee Code Annotated section 24-1-208(b),” which generally protects journalists against having to disclose the sources of their information.  The Court’s opinion explains:

“[A]ssertion of the fair report privilege will necessarily entail disclosure of the media defendant’s source of information. This is because a media defendant asserting the privilege must show that the allegedly defamatory information is a fair and accurate report of official actions or proceedings, and therefore, the media defendant must disclose the source of the allegedly defamatory information.” 

The Court made clear, however, that “the exception to the shield law allows a court to compel disclosure of the source of a media defendant’s information—how media defendants know something; it does not authorize a court to compel media defendants to disclose the information the source provided.”

Read the Tennessee Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Glenn R. Funk v. Scripps Media, Inc. here.

This post will be updated.

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Nashville School of Law Graduate JT Conway Wins Defamation Lawsuit Against Convicted Felon, Ex-Beauty Queen Kumari Fulbright

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Nashville, TN—Following a more than ten-year saga involving multiple criminal convictions and intense national media attention, Joshua “JT” Conway has closed the final chapter of his kidnapping, violent torture, and near-murder at the hands of former Arizona beauty queen and convicted felon Kumari Fulbright, Conway’s ex-girlfriend.  The final order granting Conway a declaratory judgment against Fulbright—which includes an agreement that “she will never use [Conway’s] name again in a public setting”—is available here.

A decade ago, Fulbright had Conway kidnapped and tortured at gunpoint for more than eight hours with the help of three armed men.  Conway eventually escaped by ripping the skin off his zip-tied hands and wrestling a gun away from Fulbright that was fired in the struggle.  Conway has since authored a tell-all book and movie script about his life and near-death experience.

For her crimes against Conway, Fulbright previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit kidnapping and aggravated assault, and she served two years in an Arizona prison following her convictions.  Fulbright was also ordered to pay Conway restitution and sentenced to an additional six years of probation.

During the criminal trial of Robert Ergonis—Fulbright’s ex-fiancé and co-conspirator in Conway’s kidnapping—Fulbright claimed that she had committed her crimes against Conway because he stole jewelry from her.  Conway fiercely disputed the allegation, however, as did Aaron Ellertson, a witness to a phone call between Conway and Fulbright that took place during the jewelry’s sale.  To this day, Fulbright’s motives for fabricating her allegations against Conway remain unknown.  “We’re never going to know why Kumari did that, but what you’re going to know at the end of the trial is that she lied about it,” Arizona prosecutor Kim Ortiz told the Arizona jury that convicted Ergonis.

After the end of her criminal sentence, Fulbright went on national television and falsely claimed—again—that her crimes against Conway were “justified” because Conway had stolen jewelry from her.  Fulbright also added new allegations that Conway had drugged her and stolen money from her as well.  In response, Conway—a recent law school graduate with a family and a reputation—sued Fulbright for defamation.

During the parties’ lawsuit, overwhelming evidence indicated that Fulbright had indeed fabricated her claims against Conway as Arizona prosecutors had argued.  The parties’ phone records proved that Conway had called Fulbright and spoken to her at length while negotiating her jewelry’s sale, and a witness to their conversation supported Conway’s longstanding claim that the jewelry had been sold with Fulbright’s knowledge and approval at her request.  A police report filed by Fulbright well after the alleged “theft” took place also indicated that another piece of jewelry that Fulbright claimed Conway stole from her had really gone missing in a Detroit hotel room—a city that Conway had never even visited.  During her deposition, Fulbright also repudiated her new claims that Conway stole money from her or drugged her, claiming instead that “I never said he stole it and [that] I know it” and that “[t]here’s a lot of other explanations” for what she claimed had happened.

Earlier this year, Fulbright formally admitted that her claims that Conway stole from her and drugged her were not supported by any proof whatsoever.  As a result, a Circuit Court Judge in Davidson County, Tennessee, issued a declaratory judgment that the allegations were baseless.  Fulbright also agreed to the entry of an order “that she will never use Plaintiff Joshua ‘JT’ Conway’s name again in a public setting.”  Further, as the losing party in the case, Fulbright was assessed the costs of the lawsuit, which she paid earlier this morning.

“As a First Amendment and speech defense lawyer, I am deeply skeptical of defamation lawsuits, and this is the first and only defamation case that I have ever considered legitimate,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who represented Conway.  “I rarely support defamation lawsuits, but when I do, it’s because a convicted felon tries to justify domestic violence and profit from her crimes by fabricating allegations that she had someone kidnapped, tortured, and very nearly killed because the person stole from her and drugged her—allegations that she knew full well were baseless at the time she made them.”

Please contact JT Conway at conway.jt@gmail.com for media inquiries.

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Photos from left to right:  Joshua “JT” Conway (submitted); Kumari Fulbright (Kevin Hayes, CBS News, Kumari Fulbright (PICTURES): Beauty Queen Known for Mug Shot Headed to Prison (Dec. 10, 2010, 12:04PM), CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/kumari-fulbright-pictures-beauty-queen-known-for-mug-shot-headed-to-prison); Robert Ergonis (Brian Mori, Last man in kidnapping guilty; Sues judge, prosecutors, and sheriff, Tucson Courts Examiner (Nov. 9, 2010, 7:49PM), https://meridiancity.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/guilty-ergonis-sues.pdf).