A group that called a political candidate “literally Hitler” in a flyer won its case challenging a law that criminalizes the use of “false language” in campaign literature. The judge presiding over the case, which was heard Thursday, called the law “incompatible with the First Amendment.”
Tennesseans for Sensible Elections Laws (TSEL), an organization that describes itself as “a nonpartisan group of concerned citizens who care about protecting Tennessee’s democratic process,” claims it was subject to criminal penalties for a political flier claiming that State Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) was “literally Hitler.” Another piece targeted State Rep. Rick Staples (D-Knoxville).
The flier likened a bill introduced by Griffey, which would require those convicted of a sexual offense involving victims under the age of 13 to be chemically castrated, to “the kind of thing you would see in Nazi Germany, not in Tennessee.”
In a statement about the suit, the group explained:
TSEL designed direct mail pieces and digital advertisements about Tennessee House Representative Bruce Griffey, saying that he was “literally Hitler” for introducing legislation that would provide for the chemical castration of certain criminal defendants, and Tennessee House Representative Rick Staples, accusing him of spending campaign funds on everything from snorkeling trips to exotic açaì bowls. TSEL knew these statements were false, but they did not send the mailers or run the digital ads for fear of prosecution.
Section 2-19-142 of Tennessee Code Annotated classifies the publication or distribution of “any campaign literature in opposition to any candidate in any election” that contains claims that are known to be false as a Class C misdemeanor. Offenders are subject to up to a $50 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
TSEL filed suit, alleging that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as “viewpoint discrimination, content-bases and identity-based discrimination, freedom of speech, and overbreadth.”
TSEL argued that the specific wording of the law “punishes only false political speech in opposition to candidates for elected office, while permitting false speech in support of such candidate.”
The group similarly argued that the law would not apply to the use of false speech in campaigning for a “non-candidate” and “prohibits a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech.”
Presiding over the case, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled in favor of TSEL. Lyle’s judgment declared Section 2-19-142 of Tennessee Code Annotated unconstitutional, stating it violated not only the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution but also Article I, Section 19 of the Tennessee Constitution.
Lyle stated that enforcement of the law is “a credible threat to the Plaintiff’s exercise of the speech in issue,” referring to the mailer.
The Court also ruled that TSEL could recuperate its legal fees and costs.
You can read the Court’s opinion here:
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