ACLU-TN Wins Defense of Woman Who Called Out White Supremacy

Court Rules That Pointing Out an Individual's Established Support for a White Supremacist Organization Is Not Defamation

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
October 27, 2017 3:30 pm

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has prevailed in an appeal on behalf of a Franklin County woman charged with defamation for calling someone who displayed a League of the South bumper sticker on his car a “white supremacist” on social media.

ACLU-TN filed the appeal on behalf of Lisa Rung, a Franklin County mother. The plaintiff, Robert Weidlich, a vocal opponent of a gay-straight alliance student club at the local high school, had made public statements at a school board meeting about LGBT people that Ms. Rung found offensive and harmful. Following a subsequent school board meeting, Ms. Rung saw Mr. Weidlich’s car in the parking lot bearing bumper stickers for the League of the South, an organization which Ms. Rung knew was considered a hate group.

Mr. Weidlich’s wife was considering running for the local school board at the time. Ms. Rung posted a photo of the bumper sticker along with a pointedly-worded statement on Facebook expressing her opinion based on the photograph that the Weidlichs were white supremacists and that the community should remember this come election time. Mr. Weidlich sued Ms. Rung for defamation.

“Expressing your opinion that someone is a racist when they do things that are racist is not unlawful — it’s protected by the First Amendment,” said Thomas H. Castelli, American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee legal director. “Ensuring that people can express their opinions on matters of public importance without fear of unwarranted legal retaliation is particularly important in today’s heated political climate.”

The courts have established that to be considered defamatory, statements must be published with knowledge that they are false and slanderous, with reckless disregard for the truth of the statement. The appeals court ruled that since the bumper sticker was indeed on Weidlich’s car and Rung’s post included a photo of the car, her post amounted to her expressing her personal opinion about what the photo showed, which is not defamatory but protected by the First Amendment.

“We are pleased that the court has safeguarded people’s free speech right to call out white supremacy when it is based on observable facts,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “While the First Amendment protects all people’s right to peacefully express their viewpoints, including those with whom we vehemently disagree and who disagree with us, this ruling reinforces that we do not need to stay silent in the face of white supremacy. Indeed, we can only overcome bigotry and racism in this country if we look it squarely in the eyes and reject it.”

Weidlich v. Rung was filed in the Tennessee Court of Appeals — Middle Division. In addition to Castelli, the plaintiff is represented by ACLU-TN cooperating attorneys Gregory F. Laufer and Stephen C. Thompson of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

A copy of the appellate court decision can be found here.

A copy of ACLU-TN’s original brief filed in this case can be found here.

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