ACLU wins appeal in 'white supremacist' defamation lawsuit
Oct. 28, 2017
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee woman does not have to pay thousands of dollars to a man who she called a "white supremacist" on Facebook after she saw that his vehicle had bumper stickers promoting the Confederacy and a Southern nationalist group, a court ruled Thursday.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals' Middle Division reversed a lower court's decision, finding that defendant Lisa Rung hadn't defamed Robert Weidlich and therefore doesn't owe $7,000 in damages, The Tennessean reported .
Representing the defendant, the American Civil Liberties Union said Rung was offended by comments Weidlich made against the LGBT community at a school board meeting. At the time, Weidlich's wife was considering running for the school board in Franklin County. After the meeting, Rung noticed Weidlich's bumper stickers, including one promoting the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a neo-Confederate hate group. Another featured the word "SECEDE" next to a picture of a Confederate battle flag.
Rung later posted a photo of the vehicle on Facebook, referring to Weidlich's family as "white supremacist(s)."
Weidlich, then sued, testifying that publicity surrounding the post had hurt his auto-mechanic business. He denied being a white supremacist or being associated with any white supremacist groups.
The court ruled that Rung's statement was a "grave accusation," but she had not made it without context and had instead crucially included a photo of the bumper stickers in the post.
"Anyone reading Rung's post had full access to the facts available to Rung — the photo. So informed, readers were free to accept or reject Rung's opinion as they saw fit," the court wrote .
It is unclear whether Weidlich plans to appeal the ruling.
In a statement, ACLU-TN's legal director Thomas Castelli said that speaking out without "fear of unwarranted legal retaliation is particularly important in today's heated political climate."
"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," Castelli said.
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com