Sumner County Mayor Anthony Holt referred to a conservative-minded group as “radical,” and forbid any future meetings of the group from being held in a county building.
The “radical” group that Holt called out is the Sumner County Republican Assembly (SCRA), a chapter of the Tennessee Republican Assembly.
The building that Holt banned the SCRA from using is the New Shackle Island Community Center. Construction of the facility was funded from Sumner County’s 2008-2009 budget with $700,000 of taxpayer dollars for use as a community center, ambulance station and fire hall.
The SCRA says that, unlike the state GOP that “cares more about the number of people who join the party, the SCRA is “focused more on the quality of Republican.”
As such, the SCRA is “focused on moving the Republican party back to being conservative” and uses a strict vetting and re-vetting process for their members.
The SCRA’s stated mission: “To be a conservative Republican organization devoted to expanding the principles of liberty and conservatism by holding our elected officials accountable and by recruiting and supporting candidates for local political offices.”
The SCRA’s parent organization – the Tennessee Republican Assembly – is part of a nationwide movement of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies to lead the Republican Party back to the principles of America’s Founding Fathers.
The SCRA was founded in August 2018, according to Chairman Kurt Riley, and has met monthly since that time at Sumner County’s New Shackle Island Community Center.
The facility, with its meeting room and large bay area for the fire and rescue vehicles, has hosted a number and wide variety of political and non-political events over the years.
Last week, Riley was advised by Shackle Island Fire Chief Marty Bowers that the SCRA can no longer lease or use the facility, per the direct orders of Mayor Holt who views such groups as “radical.”
Riley has retained Kirk Clements, founder and chief counsel of the non-profit, public-interest law firm Sovereignty Legal Foundation, in the case.
Clements sent a letter dated Friday, September 11 to Sumner County Law Director Leah Dennen.
The stated purpose of Clements’ letter is to to “respectfully request that Holt rescind his unlawful fiat and allow the SCRA,” which is scheduled to hold its next regularly scheduled meeting September 19, to continue to use the community center, “without further interruption or harassment.”
In addition to reminding the county law director, “[i]t is axiomatic that government entity cannot preclude the use of a public forum to any individual or organization based on political views or similar First Amendment protected speech without a compelling governmental interest,” Clements points out in his letter that “Holt’s designation of the SCRA as ‘radical’ can only be construed to mean he does not approve of their political positions or views.”
Clements goes on to recognize that Holt’s disdain for a conservative group such as the SCRA is not surprising given his big government positions.
However, Clements finds it “stunning” that Holt is “attempting to use county property in a clear abuse of power to silence those with which he does not agree.”
If Holt persists in his position of banning the group from meeting in county space, Clements advises that Holt unwittingly exposes himself to personal liability.
When a government official violates a clearly established right, says Clements, they are not entitled to qualified government immunity.
To substantiate the point, Clements quotes from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit opinion in Habel v. Twp. of Macomb: “Qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
Clements concluded by expressing hope that Holt will promptly comply with the request, so that litigation and the associated unnecessary costs to taxpayers can be avoided.
At the time of publication deadline, Clements had not received a response from the Sumner County Law Director or Holt.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.