Property Rights

Criticism of Politicians Is Not Defamation, Even If You Use the D-Word


Last week a Tennessee judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought by Clarksville officials against local property rights activists who portrayed them as cozy with developers. Richard Swift, a developer who at the time was on the Clarksville City Council, and Wayne Wilkinson, a member of Clarksville's Downtown District Partnership, sued members of the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition over a newspaper ad that said a redevelopment plan involving the use of eminent domain was "of the developers, by the developers, and for the developers." You've got to be kidding me, Sumner County Circuit Judge C.L. "Buck" Rogers said:

Debate on public issues shall be uninhibited [and] wide open and generally [does] include vehement, caustic and unpleasant attacks on the character and bias of public officials….Accusing a public official or public figure of using their political influence to obtain a benefit for others or themselves or favoring their supporters is not defamation.

Bert Gall, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represented the activists, called the decision "a tremendous victory for everyone who speaks out against the abuse of eminent domain"  and a warning to "thin-skinned politicians and developers." Rogers' ruling is here (PDF). I discussed the Clarksville case last year. For more on thin-skinned developers, see here and here.