Tennessee bill targeting news organizations has been introduced elsewhere, too

Andy Sher, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·6 min read

Mar. 6—NASHVILLE — Two Tennessee lawmakers have introduced legislation that seeks to force news outlets reporting about criminal charges or civil lawsuit claims to follow up on case outcomes if subjects of the articles demand it.

If they refuse, newspaper, television, radio and web-based news outlets would risk being subjected to court-ordered damages of $10,000, attorney fees and "other forms of equitable and injunctive relief" under the legislation.

Experts say the bill, dubbed the "Stop Guilt By Accusation Act," which seeks to invoke a "defamation in kind" provision, violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press.

"This bill is unconstitutional. It's not a close call," said Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University. "The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled clearly that you cannot compel speech, that's the operative phrase, the First Amendment protects not only your speech but also your right not to speak."

Paulson, an attorney, former reporter and one-time editor-in-chief of USA Today, also noted "the legislature cannot impose publication requirements on news organizations. Just as it cannot force a legislator to apologize for introducing a clearly unconstitutional bill."

Paul McAdoo, a Nashville lawyer and Tennessee legal initiative attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called the bill "constitutionally suspect." It "compels publication, and government compelling publication is constitutionally problematic," McAdoo added. "Especially when there's a fine attached to it."

He cited a unanimous 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a Florida law which sought to require newspapers grant a right to reply to political candidates whose personal character or official record had come under criticism.

Similar or identical "Guilt by Accusation Act" bills were pushed unsuccessfully in the past few years in Mississippi and Rhode Island.

In addition to the bill's introduction this year in Tennessee, another "Guilt by Accusation Act" is pending in the New Hampshire legislature this year. And there is a "Stop Guilt by Accusation Act" pending in the Maine legislature.

Constitutionality issues aren't deterring the bill's two conservative sponsors, Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Old Hickory, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma. They have introduced the legislation as House Bill 1219/Senate Bill 1297.

"You know what, I think you ask a lot of attorneys, line them all up, some would say that it's unconstitutional, some would say it's constitutional, some would probably have a mix," Lynn told the Times Free Press. "There's differing opinions."

Said Bowling: "It's just to make certain that someone's reputation, in fact their life, gets kind of restored because it's hard, one person at a time who looks at you and says 'Wasn't that your picture on the front page or wasn't that your picture on the newscast or whatever?' And they say 'No, I'm innocent.' You know, well sure. It's just inequity."

Paulson said news organizations typically follow up on their previous reporting if cases are dismissed, defendants acquitted by juries or there are plea bargain deals that reduce original charges.

The Mississippi and Rhode Island bills have been associated with a former Nashville lawyer — Vanderbilt University Law School graduate, songwriter and anti-gay activist Mark Christopher "Chris" Sevier.

Sevier, whose cell phone message box was full and did not respond to a reporter's email and text messages, has made headlines in the past by suing to legally marry his computer in an effort to protest same-sex marriage.

In 2011, Sevier's law license was moved to "disability status" by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which stated that was "by reason of mental infirmity or illness" with the order in effect "for an indefinite period and until further order of this court."

Back in 2013, Sevier was charged by Metro Nashville police with felony stalking and other charges involving country music superstar John Rich and, separately, a 17-year-old girl who worked at an ice cream shop.

He was later convicted of reduced misdemeanor charges of harassment and ordered to stay away from Rich, the girl and a female assistant prosecutor, according to the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk's website.

Lynn said she couldn't recall the name of the person who brought her the bill, saying her administrative assistant, who was away from the office for family-related issues, would have the information.

"I did talk to him and he told me he was an assistant DA," Lynn said. "And he gave a bill to someone else, two bills to two other legislators."

Informed by a reporter about the 2013 stalking accusations involving Rich and the 17-year-old girl, Lynn said "that's concerning."

Bowling, the Senate sponsor, recalled having spoken to some people from Memphis about the legislation at one point and her administrative assistant recalled getting the legislation from Lynn's office.

Rich and Sevier, the owner of Severe Records, had quarreled in the past. Among other things Sevier had sued Rich back in 2008 over copyright infringement, WZTV-TV in Nashville reported in a 2014 story regarding the stalking charges. The station also reported that Sevier, who served with the Tennessee National Guard during the Iraq War, had PTSD.

Sevier previously sued Apple in U.S. District Court in Nashville, blaming the lack of filters on his computer for a pornography addiction that he blamed for destroying his marriage.

He has also promoted legislation in Tennessee and other states dubbed "The Human Trafficking Prevention Act." It seeks to require a pornography filter for laptops, cellphones, routers and similar devices connected to the internet. Consumers would have to pay $20 to remove it.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in 2019 about two bills introduced in the Arkansas legislature, including the $20 porn filter fee bill. The article noted that Sevier threatened to sue the newspaper for libel during an interview.

The newspaper also quoted a John Gunter Jr., described as working with Sevier to promote the bill, who issued similar legal threats during an interview as well a promise to "burn your paper" to the ground. An effort to reach Gunter on Saturday was unsuccessful.

In 2017, The Daily Beast reported about Sevier's efforts on the trafficking prevention bill. The article noted that in 2011 Sevier was arrested and subsequently convicted in Texas for assaulting his father-in-law during a fight over visitation rights involving Sevier's then-7-month-old son. Sevier tried to take the infant during a supervised visit, The Daily Beast reported, and the baby was injured in the altercation.

Asked last month during a video meeting with the Tennessee Press Association about the "Guilt by Accusation Act," Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, said "a lot of times there are bills that are filed that never ever get anywhere, that sponsors don't even pursue them. Sometimes they're changed dramatically in committees."

McNally said the issues the legislation raises "certainly would be very complex. I imagine it would end up in our Judiciary Committee under Chairman [Mike] Bell. And I don't think it would survive, I don't know for sure, I think it would have difficulty."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.