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VOL. 44 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 20, 2020

Lawsuit challenges Tennessee false campaign literature law

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NASHVILLE (AP) — A political action committee is challenging a Tennessee law that criminalizes publishing false campaign literature, arguing that such bans violate the U.S. Constitution.

The nonpartisan group Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws filed the complaint earlier this month against Attorney General Herbert Slatery and the Davidson County district attorney general's office.

A spokeswoman for Slatery said the attorney general's office was aware of the complaint but declined to comment because the lawsuit was pending.

According to the lawsuit, the group seeks to publish "literally false campaign literature in opposition to candidates campaigning for state office" that uses satire, parody and hyperbole.

The complaint contends that "core political speech" is protected by the First Amendment and thus should not be subject to possible criminal prosecution.

The group says it wants to distribute campaign materials urging voters not to reelect Rep. Bruce Griffey, from Paris, that describes the Republican as "literally Hitler."

Griffey, who was elected in 2018, has supported a wide range of controversial measures during his time in the GOP-dominated Statehouse but hasn't had much success advancing them. The complaint cited Griffey's introduction of legislation requiring chemical castration for anyone convicted of sex offenses against minors.

"Because Rep. Griffey is not, in fact, 'literally Hitler,' and because Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws is aware of that fact, the campaign literature that Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws seeks to publish and distribute will subject it to the possibility of criminal prosecution," the complaint stated.

Additionally, the group also said it wanted to publish campaign materials opposing Democratic Rep. Rick Staples, of Knoxville, by satirizing his campaign expenditures that have recently come under scrutiny.

State auditors have demanded Staples explain thousands of dollars in campaign spending after news reports showed he used campaign cash for travel expenses that occurred around his wedding, as well as other expense that coincided with a bowl game in Florida.

"Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws ... wishes to publish a series of satirical but literally false online campaign advertisements that urge voters to oppose Rep. Staples' reelection," the complaint stated.

The complaint also notes that the law only penalizes false speech when it's in opposition to a candidate and not false information that supports political candidates.

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