Law Criminalizing Use of False Language in Campaign Literature Ruled Unconstitutional by Davidson County Judge


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.”

The mailer TSEL designed targeting State Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris). Although the mailer claiming Griffey was “literally Hitler” was displayed in media coverage of the lawsuit as well as on the social media accounts of TSEL, an example of the piece targeting Staples was not featured. / Twitter

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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Sam Medley is a journalist at the Tennessee Star and Star News Network. You can follow Sam at Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]





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4 Thoughts to “Law Criminalizing Use of False Language in Campaign Literature Ruled Unconstitutional by Davidson County Judge”

  1. Kris Bancroft

    Thank you Sam Medley for covering this.
    It must be clear to everyone by now the Left have no limitations as to the depths they will go to try to smear a good man. (Unfortunately, the Left are getting more than a little help from some of the RINOs in Tennessee State politics, but that’s a matter for a future discussion!)
    As we move forward toward November, I hope everyone will keep in mind that this is only one of many reasons why we must support CONSERVATIVE representatives.

  2. Wolf Woman

    What a tacky leftist smear flyer!

    My take-away from this article is that TSEL thinks its a bad thing to punish pedophiles with chemical castration when even criminals hold pedophiles to be the lowest of the low. Which they are.

    The problem is that pedophiles have a low rate of rehabilitation, so when they get out of jail, a high percentage return to their crimes. Pedophilia, which is accepted by the Left (NAMBLA), is the hallmark of a decadent, corrupt society and brings life-long suffering to innocent, powerless children.

    Personally, I have another solution which is more drastic but would solve the problem permanently.


    1. Deplorable Bay Stater

      Read the article! This isn’t about how pedophiles should be treated (although I’m inclined to agree with your sentiments on that matter). It’s about free speech…even — indeed, especially — speech with which you disagree. By supporting the State’s attempt to regulate free speech, you are acting just like the Leftists/Marxists who are trying to silence everyone who disagrees with them…or even agrees, but not quite violently enough.

      I agree that TSEL is on the wrong side of the pedophile question, and used (or at least contemplated using) reprehensible tactics to support their position, but they are on the right side of the free speech question. We must have free speech for EVERYONE, because if we don’t, we’ll end up with no free speech at all.

      As a very wise person once said, “I abhor what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

      1. John

        Bay Stater, slander isn’t covered under the 1st Amendment.