Stanton Foundation First Amendment Clinic wins case for Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws

Aug 10, 2020

The Stanton Foundation First Amendment Clinic, representing Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws (TSEL), a nonprofit advocacy group, recently prevailed in a case that sought to declare unconstitutional a Tennessee election law that criminalized false speech in opposition to a political candidate.

The First Amendment Clinic, directed by G.S. Hans, filed suit on behalf of TSEL this spring. “We argued that the law should be overturned on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, with the goal of winning our client and others in Tennessee the right to produce and distribute satirical, parodical and hyperbolic campaign literature,” Hans said. “The statute has a number of constitutional problems, and the chilling effects on speakers and publishers were signfiicant.”

Read reporter Adam Tamburin’s Aug. 1 article about this case in The Tennessean

Read TSEL’s July announcement of the ruling in this case

TSEL planned to distribute a mailer criticizing state Rep. Bruce Griffey, who represents Paris, Tennessee, after he introduced a bill that would have required anyone convicted of sexual offenses against minors to undergo “chemical castration” if released on parole. Griffey’s bill defined chemical castration as medication that “reduces, inhibits or blocks the production of testosterone, hormones or other chemicals in a person’s body” and would have required parolees to submit to treatment as a condition of their release from prison.

The TSEL mailer accused Griffey of promoting “an agenda the Nazis would love,” and urged voters to “Vote No on Bruce Griffey—he’s literally Hitler!” Because the statements in the mailer were false and were in opposition to a political candidate, TSEL’s distribution of the mailer could have led to criminal charges against the organization.

After oral arguments on TSEL’s summary judgment motion, Davidson County Chancellor Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that the statute was unconstitutional, citing several arguments presented in TSEL’s brief. “Such viewpoint discrimination is incompatible with the First Amendment, and no compelling interest supports it,” Lyle’s opinion stated.

Chancellor Lyle’s ruling held that the statute was facially unconstitutional.

Jimmy Ryan ’21 successfully argued against the state’s motion to dismiss this case in May, and Hans argued the motion for summary judgment motion in July. “We’re thrilled with Chancellor Lyle’s opinion,” Hans said. “I’m particularly grateful to our co-counsel, Daniel Horwitz ’13, and to George Scoville at TSEL, who has been a wonderful client. The students have gotten great experience working with them, from drafting and filing the complaint and motions, to interacting with opposing counsel and Chancellor Lyle’s chambers, to oral advocacy experience.”

Paige Tenkhoff ’20, Amber Banks ’20 and Cole Browndorf ’20 were also members of the clinic team working on the case.

Hans believes the clinic’s work on the case will continue. “I think the state will appeal. If they do, the clinic and our students will continue to work on the case in the coming academic year.” he said.

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