Tag Archives: First Amendment

Nashville School of Law Graduate JT Conway Wins Libel 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.

###

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

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).

 

Restaurateur Wins Defamation Suit (Again)

In a resounding win, celebrated Nashville restaurateur Randy Rayburn has again beaten back a multi-million dollar defamation and false light lawsuit filed against him by Thomas Nathan Loftis, Sr., the former director of Nashville State’s culinary program.  In a unanimous ruling, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the outright dismissal of Mr. Loftis’s claims on the basis that Loftis had advanced a “far-fetched and not a reasonable interpretation” of the statements that he had sued over, and that “the statements in the newspaper article are not defamatory as a matter of law.”  The Court of Appeals also ordered Mr. Loftis to pay for the costs of the lawsuit, and it further ordered the Trial Court to determine whether Loftis must pay Mr. Rayburn’s legal fees.

Given the serious threat that the case posed to the viability of newsgathering in Tennessee, the lawsuit attracted national attention from First Amendment organizations like The First Amendment Center’s Newseum Institute and TechDirt.  Following a disturbing trend in local media of inflating the legitimacy of almost uniformly baseless defamation lawsuits when they are filed but failing to cover them after they fail, however, the Court of Appeals’ decision has gone unreported in Nashville.

Mr. Loftis’s lawsuit was novel in that it was filed over statements that had been authored by a Tennessean newspaper journalist in an article in which Mr. Rayburn—the supposed source of the statements at issue—was not even quoted.  As a result, the lawsuit attempted to run an end-around Tennessee’s source-protection statutes, and it also served as a warning that anyone who is even referenced in a news article containing critical coverage can be threatened with multi-year, multi-million dollar litigation.  Had the lawsuit been permitted to go forward, it stands to reason that news sources would have been far less likely to speak to journalists on the record or to interact with the media at all.

Significantly, the case also involved a stunning, outright acknowledgement from Mr. Loftis’s counsel that Mr. Rayburn had been sued in part because the newspaper that had actually published the statements at issue was more likely to be able to defend itself.  Specifically, during oral argument before the Court of Appeals, Mr. Loftis’s counsel had the following exchange with the Court:

Judge Neal McBrayer: “Why isn’t the Tennessean the proper party here?”

Gary Blackburn (Attorney for Tom Loftis):  “Your Honor, there were practical reasons for that . . . .  It is easier to bring a lawsuit against the person who uttered the words than against a publication that buys ink by the barrel, as they say, and has lots of resources.

Unfortunately, this strategy—which is rarely acknowledged so openly—is all-too-common in the defamation world.  Given the enormous costs of civil litigation, powerful people seeking to stifle criticism often file flagrantly baseless claims against those perceived to have limited resources in the hopes of being able to censor them.  As a result, as the author has explained previously, being able to sue for defamation “provide[s] enormous space for the powerful and well-resourced to threaten, censor, abuse, and intimidate those who lack the means, knowledge, or fortitude to defend themselves.”

All considered, the Court of Appeals’ decision constitutes a total victory and complete vindication for Mr. Rayburn, who has maintained that the lawsuit was frivolous from the beginning.  “We’re thrilled about this resounding win, which fully vindicates Mr. Rayburn and the First Amendment yet again,” said Daniel Horwitz, Mr. Rayburn’s attorney.  “Filing a lawsuit this frivolous was a very poor decision, and unfortunately for Mr. Loftis, it is about to become an expensive one as well.”

The Court of Appeals’ unanimous decision, authored by Judge Andy Bennett, is available here.  Selected case documents and media coverage are available below.

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

Selected Case Documents:

Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint

Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss First Amended Complaint

Plaintiff’s Response to Motion to Dismiss (1)/Plaintiff’s Response to Motion to Dismiss (2)

Defendant’s Reply to Plaintiff’s Response

Transcript of Hearing on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss

*Order Dismissing Plaintiff’s Complaint With Prejudice

Brief of Plaintiff-Appellant Thomas Nathan Loftis, Sr.

Brief of Defendant-Appellee and Cross-Appellant Randy Rayburn

*Appellate Court Order Denying Plaintiff’s Appeal and Remanding for Consideration of Attorney’s Fees Award

Selected Media Coverage:

-The Tennessean: Defamation lawsuit against restaurateur Randy Rayburn dismissed — again

-TechDirt: Judge Dumps Stupid Libel Suit Featuring A Man Suing A Third Party For Things A Journalist Said

-Nashville Business Journal: Nashville restaurateur Randy Rayburn faces $1.5 million lawsuit

-TechDirt: Former University Official Files Libel Lawsuit Against His Replacement For Things A Journalist Said

-Nashville Business Journal: Judge dismisses $1.5M suit against well-known restaurateur

-First Amendment Center’s Newseum Institute: Unusual Defamation Suit Targets Source of Story

 

Tennessee Needs to Provide More Protection to People Sued for Defamation

By Daniel A. Horwitz:

Yesterday morning, the Nashville Post reported on yet another baseless, multimillion dollar defamation lawsuit filed here in Nashville.  The lawsuit follows a series of other recent defamation actions—including since-dismissed attempts to silence dog lovers, supposed media sources, and others—that have been aimed at stifling legitimate public criticism.

It should be emphasized that the overwhelming majority of such lawsuits have no realistic chance of success in a court of law.  Disturbingly, however, regardless of their legally meritless nature, such lawsuits often achieve their intended result—censorship of critical commentary and criticism of the powerful in particular—anyway.  Because, all things being equal, people would prefer not to be sued, voluntary self-censorship can be all-too-appealing.  Thus, to prevent such societal harm, it is long past time that Tennessee adopted a meaningful Anti-SLAPP law to deter would-be censors from threatening those who lawfully exercise their fundamental right to speak freely.

Though its protections are commonly taken for granted, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution codifies the most important protection in America’s governing charter.  Chief among the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment is the proscription against government action that “abridg[es] the freedom of speech.”  Uncontroversially, the right to speak freely plays an indispensable role in enabling the free exchange of thoughts, information, and ideas.  Indeed, without such a right, democratic government would not be possible at all.  If unaccompanied by the right to speak freely and critically, for example, “free and fair” elections would quickly become unrecognizable.

When it comes to defamation lawsuits, the First Amendment affords citizens enormous protection.  In practice, however, exercising one’s constitutional right to criticize the powerful can result in ruinous financial consequences.

The ability to sue people for defamation (libel in published form, slander by spoken word) or any number of other speech-related torts—like false light invasion of privacy—operate as theoretically narrow exceptions to the broad rule that speech is not illegal.  As a practical matter, however, most people cannot afford the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in legal fees that are necessary to defend oneself against even the most frivolous defamation claims.  Nor are most people willing to endure the years of terror and stress that commonly accompany litigation.  As a consequence, in practice, these theoretically narrow exceptions provide enormous space for the powerful and well-resourced to threaten, censor, abuse, and intimidate those who lack the means, knowledge, or fortitude to defend themselves.  Further, when media outlets puff up defamation lawsuits and hype the liability that defendants are facing at the outset of a case regardless of legitimacy—but then fail to follow up after a lawsuit predictably collapses—all that viewers learn is that criticizing powerful people is dangerous.

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that all defamation lawsuits are meritless.  In the 1966 case Rosenblatt v. Baer, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart persuasively observed that: “The right of a man to the protection of his own reputation from unjustified invasion and wrongful hurt reflects no more than our basic concept of the essential dignity and worth of every human being—a concept at the root of any decent system of ordered liberty.”  This worldview still carries widespread acceptance.  Accordingly, even the most ardent defenders of the First Amendment support defamation claims where, for example, someone falsely accuses an innocent child of being a murderer.  Indeed, even this author has filed a defamation suit to protect the reputation of an individual who was subjected to fabricated claims (on national television) of being a rapist and a thief by a woman who had had him kidnapped, tortured and very nearly killed—a lawsuit that ultimately resulted in an admission that the allegations were baseless.

Despite their frequency, however, legitimate defamation suits are few and far between.  Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of people who are sued for defamation are subjected to potential liability for lawfully exercising a constitutional right.  Further, because the First Amendment values not only the right to speak, but also the right to hear and the right to receive information, when individuals are censored, society as a whole suffers.

To deter such harm, many states have adopted “Anti-SLAPP” laws, which afford people who are sued for defamation special protections in response to “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.”  Although the substance of such laws varies across jurisdictions, they frequently contain provisions requiring mandatory payment of attorney’s fees in the event of a successful defense; an expedited process for reviewing the legitimacy of a plaintiff’s lawsuit; and/or an automatic right to appeal early on in the proceedings.

Tennessee, for its part, has a limited Anti-SLAPP law that provides for the payment of attorney’s fees when a person is improperly sued for exercising “such person’s right of free speech or petition under the Tennessee or United States Constitution in connection with a public or governmental issue,” and when the person sued has “communicate[d] information regarding another person or entity to any agency of the federal, state or local government regarding a matter of concern to that agency.”  Because few statements resulting in defamation lawsuits arise out of reports to government agencies, however, few defendants are able to take advantage of the law’s protection.  Given that speech in the public square is every bit as important as statements made to government agencies, however, it is long past time for these protections to be expanded.

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws: It Shouldn’t Be a Crime to Make Fun of Your State Representative. In Tennessee, It Is.

Republished with permission from Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws, a new organization seeking to ensure that Tennessee’s election statutes, policies, and regulations protect the rights of all Tennesseans to participate in democracy and support candidates of their choosing without unreasonable governmental interference.

_________________________

If you decide that you’ve had enough of the nonsense in Nashville and you send postcards to potential voters claiming your representative “has cauliflower for brains”—or if you publish or distribute any other “campaign literature in opposition to any candidate in any election” that you know to be false—police can arrest you for committing a Class C misdemeanor, lock you in a cage for a month, and fine you for every postcard you send.  Frighteningly, if Tennessee House Representative Karen Camper (D-Memphis) and Tennessee Senator Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) get their way, the “crime” of distributing false campaign literature would be elevated to a Class A misdemeanor, allowing the state to lock you up for nearly a year.

What country is this, and what happened to America?

The often-misunderstood Citizens United v. FEC case turns eight years old this year.  In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects people from being thrown in jail for exercising their right to free speech.  What better time is there to explore why the ideas behind Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 are so bad?

It goes without saying that giving government officials the power to imprison people who criticize or make fun of them is a dangerous, slippery slope.  With that context in mind, it is also worth noting that the Camper/Tate bill that the General Assembly is considering this legislative session helps nobody more than it helps Rep. Camper and Sen. Tate.  If you can’t write that your representative has cauliflower for brains, what can you write?  You can write a bunch of boring technical, legal, or public policy jargon that most people don’t understand.  When people read those kinds of things, they either vote for people who already hold office—like Rep. Camper and Sen. Tate—or they get frustrated and don’t vote at all.  Either way, incumbents win.

In a case involving an Ohio state law that criminalized political speech the same way that Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 does, Cato Institute constitutional scholar Ilya Shapiro once argued to the Supreme Court that “‘truthiness’—a ‘truth’ asserted ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right,’ without regard to evidence or logic—is . . . a key part of political discourse.”  He also recognized that “the government [is not] well-suited for evaluating when a statement crosses the line into falsehood.”  That’s doubly true for people who have both the power to make laws and a personal interest in the outcome of their next election.  (And ultimately, Shapiro proved right: Ohio backed away from trying to enforce its unconstitutional law against a nonprofit that wanted to put up a billboard.)

Further, Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 ignores that saying nasty things about the other guy or gal is as American as apple pie.  When Thomas Jefferson ran for president in 1800, he accused President John Adams of “trying to start a war with France,” “importing mistresses from Europe,” and committing that cardinal sin of “trying to marry one of his sons to a daughter of King George.”  Adams, a known verbal pugilist, repaid Jefferson in kind, saying that if people elected the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, their homes would spontaneously combust.  (And thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, many people now know that Adams also called Alexander Hamilton a “Creole bastard”—but that was actually true!)

If politicians want to literally handcuff themselves from being able to joke about some of the more cartoonish candidates for Tennessee governor and U.S. Senate this year, I suppose they can be my guest—because that’s exactly what Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 does.  Of course, Tennesseans who support sensible election laws shouldn’t let this happen.  Vote against Rep. Camper and Sen. Tate in the next election.  After all, they have cauliflower for brains.

Paid for by Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws.  George S. Scoville III, Treasurer.  Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee, but we don’t think it should be a crime not to tell you that.

_________________________

 

Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws is a non-partisan, non-profit group of concerned citizens who care about protecting Tennessee’s democratic process.  Our mission is to ensure that Tennessee’s election statutes, policies, and regulations protect the rights of all Tennesseans to participate in democracy and support candidates of their choosing without unreasonable governmental interference.

We work toward this mission by supporting pro-democracy candidates for public office, initiating strategic litigation, engaging in direct lobbying, and promoting public awareness.   Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and please click here to support our work.

Sixth Circuit Upholds Vote On Amendment 1

In a decision issued earlier this morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit formally upheld Tennesseans’ 2014 vote to ratify Amendment 1 to the Tennessee Constitution.  The amendment provided that:

“Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”

Following the referendum election—which Tennesseans supported by a margin of 53%-47% in a contest involving nearly 1.4 million voters—opponents of the amendment challenged the results of the election in federal court, arguing that state officials should have disqualified the votes of anyone who declined to vote in the Governor’s race.  The challengers’ claim was premised upon a reading of an inartfully drafted provision of Tennessee’s Constitution, which states that:

“[I]f the people shall approve and ratify such amendment or amendments by a
majority of all the citizens of the State voting for Governor, voting in their favor,
such amendment or amendments shall become a part of this Constitution.”

Although initially accepted by the now-vacated decision of the District Court, the challengers’ reading of the above provision had several critical problems.  Among them, the novel interpretation that they demanded had never previously been applied in any referendum election in Tennessee’s history.  Most importantly, however, as the Yes On 1 Committee argued in an amicus brief filed in the Sixth Circuit, the challengers’ position would have unconstitutionally caused “the votes of tens of thousands of qualified voters—as many as eighty thousand, by some estimates—[to] be subject to wholesale invalidation for no other reason than that the voters who cast them did not support any candidate for governor.”  The same deficiency was noted in an editorial penned by Daniel Horwitz, Yes On 1’s eventual election counsel, in a 2014 op ed published in the Tennessean.

The Sixth Circuit’s opinion held that for purposes of the federal lawsuit, a separate state court decision that had previously determined that all votes in a referendum election must be counted regardless of whether or not a voter had voted in the Governor’s race was entitled to preclusive effect.  In a footnote, however, the Sixth Circuit also explained that it would have reached the same conclusion independently, noting that:

“[P]laintiffs’ preferred reading of the text of Article XI, Section 3, while not implausible on its face, would be patently unreasonable in effect. Not only would their proposed construction—requiring a voter to vote for governor as a prerequisite to casting a valid vote on Amendment 1—contravene longstanding practice and pre-election instructions published to the public, and effectively nullify the votes of thousands of citizens; it would also conflict with another provision of the Tennessee Constitution. Article IV, Section 1 prohibits the imposition of any additional qualification to vote, beyond age, U.S. citizenship, state residency, and registration. To adopt plaintiffs’ proposed interpretation would be to run afoul of our obligation, in construing state law, “to avoid constitutional difficulty” when fairly possible.”

“The issues involved in this lawsuit had absolutely nothing to do with abortion,” said Daniel Horwitz, election counsel for the Yes On 1 Campaign. “Instead, this was a direct challenge to pro-life voters’ right to vote itself, and fortunately, the right to vote won. Anybody who cares about the integrity of the democratic process should be both gratified and reassured by this outcome.”

The Sixth Circuit’s decision in the case is available here.

Selected Case Documents:

Brief of the “Yes On 1” Campaign as Amicus Curiae

Sixth Circuit Opinion Reversing District Court

Sixth Circuit Order Denying En Banc Review

Selected Media Coverage:

-The Tennessean: Appeals court won’t reconsider Tennessee abortion measure decision

-Patch: Federal Court Denies Challenge To Tennessee Abortion Amendment

-Yes on 1: Yes on 1 Files State Court Motion on Behalf of Disenfranchised Voters

-The Tennessean: Amendment 1 plaintiffs on shaky legal ground

-The Tennessean: Appeals court upholds vote count on Tennessee abortion measure Amendment 1

-The Tennessean: Fate of Tennessee abortion measure Amendment 1 now up to appeals court

-Pro Life News: Tennessee: Pro-Life Win as Judge Says State Counted Votes Correctly on Amendment 1

-News Channel 5: Vote Counting For Tennessee Abortion Measure Argued In Federal Court

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

Slate: If the Supreme Court thinks nonmembers can’t be compelled to pay union fees, then unions can’t be compelled to represent nonmembers.

By Daniel A. Horwitz:

Late last month, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case that challenges public-sector unions’ right to collect fees from nonmembers. Such “fair share” fees have been a legal bedrock of labor unions since the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.  In Abood, the court held that unions could lawfully charge fees to non–union members to help offset the costs of “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment” from which all employees benefit, as long as the union does not use such fees for political purposes.  Continue reading Slate: If the Supreme Court thinks nonmembers can’t be compelled to pay union fees, then unions can’t be compelled to represent nonmembers.

Local First Amendment Scholar Calls on Justice Kennedy to Reverse His Worst First Amendment Decision

By Daniel A. Horwitz

Local First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson, Jr. – an occasional guest contributor to this blog whose First Amendment resume rivals anyone alive (Ombudsman for the First Amendment Center, Legal Fellow for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Professor of First Amendment Law at Vanderbilt Law School, etc.) – has penned an excellent piece over at Slate calling on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to undo the damage of Garcetti v. Ceballos—one of the worst First Amendment decisions in the Supreme Court’s modern history.

Decided in 2006, the Supreme Court’s contentious 5-4 decision in Garcetti upended previously settled law regarding the First Amendment rights of public employees.  The Court’s majority opinion—authored by Justice Kennedy—stands for the general proposition that even if public employees are exposing governmental misconduct or speaking about matters of unquestioned public importance, they have no First Amendment protection whatsoever for any speech made pursuant to their official duties.  As Hudson explains:

“In Garcetti, the Supreme Court created a categorical rule: ‘When public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.'”

The consequences of Garcetti have been devastating, falling particularly hard on whistleblowers and other public employees who have sought to expose official misconduct.  Professor Hudson’s full piece (accessible here) is well worth the read, and for the public’s sake, one can only hope that Justice Kennedy will take notice.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

Metro Drops “Obscene Bumper Sticker” Citation Against Dustin Owens; Concedes Bumper Sticker Is Protected By the First Amendment

Nashville, Tennessee, March 13, 2017—In response to a lawsuit filed by Dustin Owens after he was cited for displaying what his arresting officer claimed was an “obscene bumper sticker,” lawyers for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department have conceded that “Mr. Owens is correct that the bumper sticker at issue does not fit the criteria of ‘obscene and patently offensive’ as those terms are defined in Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-187 and under relevant First Amendment jurisprudence.”  As a result, Metro has agreed to dismiss Mr. Owens’ citation, and it will also submit to a declaratory judgment that the bumper sticker at issue “is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”  Under the parties’ settlement agreement, Metro will also pay for the costs of Mr. Owens’ lawsuit.

Mr. Owens’ resounding legal victory comes after extensive local and national media coverage of his arrest for displaying the following crass but comical bumper sticker:

Said Daniel Horwitz, Mr. Owens’ lead counsel: “The statute under which Mr. Owens was cited is facially unconstitutional.  Hard-core censorship of this nature also has no place in a free society.  We’re ecstatic about this victory, and we appreciate Metro’s prompt concession that the position taken by Mr. Owens’ arresting officer was nakedly meritless.”

Added David L. Hudson, Jr., who also represented Mr. Owens in the lawsuit: “Mr. Owens’ bumper sticker is clearly protected speech, a form of parody, and not remotely close to obscenity.  I applaud Dustin’s courage in challenging his unconstitutional citation, and I am proud to have represented him.”

Mr. Owens’ Complaint against the MNPD and his Application for a Temporary Injunction are available here and here, respectively.  The individuals referenced in this release will be available for further comment at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com and davidlhudsonjr@gmail.com once the parties’ settlement agreement has been approved by the Court.

Selected media coverage regarding the case is available at the following links:

Selected Media Coverage:

-Patch: Obscenity Charges Dropped In Nashville Stick Figure Sex Case

-Faultlines: Nashville Cops Hate Stick Figure Sex (and the First Amendment)

-Heat Street: Tennessee Cops Back Down on Fine For ‘Obscene’ Bumper Sticker of Stick Figures

-TechDirt: Driver Sues State After Receiving Ticket For ‘Obscene’ Stick Figure Vehicle Decal

Case Filings:

Plaintiff’s Complaint

Plaintiff’s Application for Temporary Injunction

*Order Granting Judgment to Plaintiff

###

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

No, Justin Timberlake Did Not Break the Law By Taking a Ballot Selfie

By Daniel Horwitz:

Demonstrating his laudable commitment to participating in the political process and encouraging others to do so as well, international music sensation and Memphis-bred popstar Justin Timberlake recently posted an instragram photo of himself rocking the (early) vote at his polling place in Memphis, Tennessee.  That terrible offense, unfortunately, has earned him a rebuke from the Shelby County District Attorney’s office, which is currently conducting a criminal investigation into his scandalous conduct.  The reason?  Tennessee’s poorly-worded “Use of Mobile Electronic and Communication Devices at Polling Place for Informational Purposes” statute, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-7-142(b), which provides that:

“Any voter using a mobile electronic or communication device . . . shall be prohibited from using the device for telephone conversations, recording, or taking photographs or videos while inside the polling place.”

Violating this provision is theoretically a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $50.00 fine.  The law, however, is unconstitutional.

The practice of taking “ballot selfies” – photographs of one’s ballot that may or may not also include the voter – has become increasingly popular among voters in recent years.  Celebrities from Beyoncé to Sean Hannity to Kim Kardashian have also gotten in on the action.  Unfortunately, however, the celebratory practice of posting ballot selfies – which should be welcomed and perhaps even encouraged in a political climate in which many voters, especially young voters, never vote at all – has also drawn the attention of overzealous state regulators.  During the November 2014 election, for instance, “approximately 35 states prohibited ballot selfies in one form or another,” and several states – Tennessee among them – “have since followed suit.”

At least one prominent election law scholar has supported the bans both as a policy matter and as a constitutional one, characterizing them as “a threat to democracy” because they could ostensibly facilitate vote-buying or coercion schemes.  As this author explained in his 2015 SMU Science and Technology Law Review article A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words: Why Ballot Selfies Are Protected by the First Amendment, however, that conclusion is woefully misguided, and ballot selfies are safely protected by the First Amendment.  Importantly, every single court that has evaluated the issue to date – which includes the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (upon review of the District Court of New Hampshire), the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Michigan – has also agreed that states cannot lawfully prohibit ballot selfies without running afoul of the First Amendment, unanimously striking down various states’ ballot selfie prohibitions on free speech grounds.  Thus, as far as the federal judiciary is concerned, Tennessee’s ballot selfie prohibition cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.

Three main reasons, detailed extensively in this article, support the conclusion that ballot selfies may not lawfully be prohibited without violating the First Amendment.

First, ballot selfie bans unnecessarily restrict a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech (like Mr. Timberlake’s) that is completely unrelated to vote buying, while simultaneously doing nothing to prevent far simpler forms of vote buying, such as absentee ballot fraud (which can be accomplished outside of the comparatively well-surveilled atmosphere of a polling place).

Second, the “compelling” nature of the Government’s interest in enacting broad-based laws to guard against vote buying is subject to considerable doubt, because vote buying is statistically non-existent even in jurisdictions where it is easy to accomplish.

Third, and most importantly, because voters have the ability to change their vote even after taking a ballot selfie, ballot selfies are a useless tool for promoting vote buying anyway—rendering the entire premise behind such laws baseless.  That reality is exposed, for example, by this set of pictures (click on the photo to enhance it) that the author took during the 2015 Nashville mayoral election, which collectively illustrate just how easy it is to change one’s vote after making an initial selection:

photo

In other words, because ballot selfies do not provide a prospective vote-buyer any level of certainty that a ballot has actually been cast in a particular way (an absolute prerequisite to any effective vote-buying scheme), ballot selfies are a useless tool for committing fraud, and banning them serves to do nothing but interfere with the political speech of innocent voters who want to do nothing more than celebrate the fact that they voted.

In sum: Justin Timberlake should be applauded for his activism and his decision to celebrate the right to vote, which is fully protected by the First Amendment.  As such, today – like most days – JT’s an American hero.

Update, 5:07 PM: To the surprise of nobody, Justin Timberlake’s prosecution for violating Tennessee’s ballot selfie ban won’t go forward.

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

First Amendment Rights of Public Employees

By Daniel Horwitz:

News Channel 2 viewers were treated to a fun story last night about the free speech rights of public employees.  According to the segment, Nashville District Fire Chief Tim Lankford was recently disciplined for controversial, conservative-leaning statements that he made on his facebook page, which were perceived by his employer as being “racial, stereotypical, and threatening toward members of the public.”  The statements included posts such as: “The first man who goes into the restroom with my daughter won’t have to worry about the surgery,” as well as a diatribe about the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling that concluded with Chief Lankford stating that he was “so disturbed” by the opinion that he could “barely function at his job.”  Chief Lankford’s discipline also comes on the heels of independent sanctions being levied against two local police officers and a Sherriff’s deputy for statements made on facebook about the military lifting its ban on transgender service members and about the Black Lives Matter movement.  All of which led News Channel 2’s reporter to wonder:  Can public employees be disciplined for their speech without running afoul of the First Amendment?

Last night’s segment does not explore the applicable First Amendment doctrine in detail, but the short answer is “sometimes.”   Sadly, for most of the 20th century, public employers had an unfettered right to take adverse employment actions against public employees for their speech whether it was expressed inside or outside of the workplace.  Specifically, the Court’s thinking went: “A policeman may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.”[1]

Happily, though – at least for those of us who believe that more speech contributes to a better democracy – the Supreme Court eventually decided to change course.  In a series of cases beginning with the Court’s 1968 decision in Pickering v. Board of Education, the Court aimed to strike a balance “between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”[2]  Approximately four decades of tweaking later, following the Supreme Court’s contentious 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos,[3] the current state of the doctrine is as follows:

Determining whether a public employee’s First Amendment rights have been violated currently requires a three-part inquiry.

First, to be protected, the employee’s speech must address a matter of public concern, rather than a purely private matter.[4]  “Matters of public concern include speech that ‘relat[es] to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.’”[5]  This requirement is broadly construed, so in addition to encompassing commentary on political issues writ large,[6] “speech falling into this category includes informing the public that a governmental entity failed to discharge its governmental responsibilities or bringing to light actual or potential wrongdoing or breach of public trust on the part of a governmental entity or any officials therein.”[7]

Second, the employee must also have been speaking as a private citizen, rather than speaking pursuant to his or her official job responsibilities.  “When public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties,” the Supreme Court has explained, “employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”[8]  Thus, although speech by public employees on matters of their employment is sometimes protected under federal and state whistleblower laws, for First Amendment purposes, public employees who speak in their capacity as public employees enjoy no First Amendment protection whatsoever.

Third, if the employee’s speech involved a matter of public concern and was not made pursuant to the employee’s official duties, then courts must attempt to “balance the interests of the public employee, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”[9]  In Garcetti, the Supreme Court instructed that “[s]o long as employees are speaking as citizens about matters of public concern, they must face only those speech restrictions that are necessary for their employers to operate efficiently and effectively.”[10]  However, lower courts have interpreted this requirement to mean that an employee’s interest in commenting upon matters of public concern must “outweigh” his or her employer’s interest in promoting an efficient and effective workplace, meaning that this final factor often derails otherwise-valid First Amendment claims as well.[11]  If the employee can satisfy all three of these requirements, however, then disciplining the employee for speaking out violates the employee’s rights under the First Amendment.

Satisfying each of these three requirements is undeniably difficult— especially for first responders who require the public’s complete trust that they will discharge their duties fully and impartially without regard to factors like a person’s race, gender, or sexual orientation.  (As former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani celebrated during his speech at the Republican National Convention on Monday, for example: “When the[ police] come to save your life, they don’t ask if you are black or white, they just come to save you!”)  Accordingly, public employees often do not enjoy quite the level of First Amendment freedom that many expect or hope to see.  Of note, however, the limited First Amendment protections afforded to public employees stand in stark contrast to those held by private employees, who enjoy no First Amendment protections with regard to their employment at all.

Of course, the First Amendment also is not the only source of protection for free speech.  Additional protections can be and often are conferred upon public employees by federal law, state law, union agreements, or by contract.  For example, pursuant to Tennessee’s Public Employee Political Freedom Act (PEPFA): “it is unlawful for any public employer to discipline, threaten to discipline or otherwise discriminate against an employee because such employee exercised that employee’s right to communicate with an elected public official.”[12]  Taking disciplinary action against a public employee who exercises his or her right to communicate with a public official under PEPFA can also result in severe consequences to a government employer, including “treble damages plus reasonable attorney fees.”[13]  Thus, the First Amendment functions as only a protective floor upon which additional free speech protections can be – and should be – built higher.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

[1] Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 143-44 (1983) (quoting  McAuliffe v. Mayor of New Bedford, 155 Mass. 216, 220, 29 N.E. 517, 517 (1892), citing Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485, 72 S.Ct. 380, 96 L.Ed. 517 (1952); Garner v. Board of Public Works, 341 U.S. 716, 71 S.Ct. 909, 95 L.Ed. 1317 (1951); United Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 67 S.Ct. 556, 91 L.Ed. 754 (1947); United States v. Wurzbach, 280 U.S. 396, 50 S.Ct. 167, 74 L.Ed. 508 (1930); Ex parte Curtis, 106 U.S. 371, 1 S.Ct. 381, 27 L.Ed. 232 (1882).

[2] 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968).

[3] 547 U.S. 410, 126 S. Ct. 1951, 164 L. Ed. 2d 689 (2006).

[4] See Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 143, 103 S.Ct. 1684, 75 L.Ed.2d 708 (1983); Hughes v. Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 542 F.3d 169, 180 (6th Cir. 2008).

[5] Rodgers v. Banks, 344 F.3d 587, 596 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Connick, 461 U.S. at 146.).

[6] See, e.g., Pickering, 391 U.S. at 571 (protecting commentary on use of tax dollars and school spending).

[7] Rodgers, 344 F.3d at 596 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted).

[8] Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 421 (2006).

[9] Hughes v. Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 542 F.3d 169, 180 (6th Cir. 2008).

[10] Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 419 (2006).

[11] See, e.g., Housey v. Macomb Cty., 534 F. App’x 316, 321 (6th Cir. 2013).

[12] Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-50-603(a).

[13] Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-50-603(b).