Tennessee Lawmaker Claims Blog Falls Under Legislative Immunity

February 25, 2009

A Republican lawmaker in Tennessee is asking a judge to dismiss a $750,000 libel lawsuit against him on the basis that his blog is covered by legislative immunity.

The lawsuit was filed by Roger Byrge, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the state House last year. It claims Rep. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville falsely wrote on his blog in the weeks before the election that Byrge had been arrested several times on drug charges.

In a response to the lawsuit filed in Jacksboro, attorney Arthur Knight wrote Campfield’s “statements would be absolutely privileged and is completely within his legitimate legislative sphere as a Tennessee state representative.”

Byrge’s attorney David Dunaway responded that no such privilege exists, and that Campfield’s blog post was defamatory and politically motivated.

“A statement about another candidate for office on Representative Campfield’s personal website had nothing whatsoever to do with any action before the Tennessee General Assembly,” according to the Dunaway’s motion. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for March 23.

Byrge’s lawsuit cites an Oct. 12 blog post by Campfield that said: “Word is a … mail piece has gone out exposing Byrge’s multiple separate drug arrests. Including arrests for possession and drug dealing. (I hear the mug shots are gold).”

Byrge lost the race for the open House District 36 seat to Republican Chad Faulkner by 391 votes. Both men are sheriff’s deputies.

Knight said in the court filing that Campfield’s blog comments were “inherently linked to legitimate legislative proceedings, and involve matters of public interest included, but not limited to, the character and conduct of Plaintiff as a public official and candidate.”

Campfield’s blog post about Byrge came several months after the 105th General Assembly adjourned.

Democratic Rep. Henry Fincher, an attorney from Cookeville who is not involved in the case, said lawmakers are granted an exemption from libel laws while speaking on the House floor to encourage free and robust debate. But that privilege doesn’t extend to other areas, he said.

“To say that just because you’re a legislator, you would have carte blanche to lie and defame others is silly,” Fincher said. “If the court agreed with this defense, they would be giving any of us a license to lie.

“And I don’t think any citizen ought to have that right,” he said.


On the Net:

Campfield’s blog: http://lastcar.blogspot.com

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