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Free Speech

Tennessee Court Expresses Doubt About Whether Anti-Libel Injunctions Are Allowed Under Tennessee Law

The underlying lawsuit was brought by Mickell Lowery, a Commissioner for Shelby County, (which contains Memphis)—and son of longtime Memphis City Councilman Myron Lowery, who had also briefly served as Mayor—over allegedly libelous statements during his election campaign.


From Lowery v Redmond, decided Monday by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Judge J. Steven Stafford, joined by Judges Kenny Armstrong and Carma Dennis McGee:

According to Petitioner/Appellee Mickell Lowery …, Respondents/Appellants Cora and Michael Redmond … defamed his character in an attempt to ensure that he would not succeed in his bid for election to public office, by distributing defamatory information about him to prospective voters. [Lowery sued for defamation. -EV] On October 30, 2017, the trial court issued a temporary restraining order in Appellee's favor…. On December 8, 2017, the trial court entered a consent order granting a temporary injunction against Appellants, relying in part on the parties' agreement to continue the temporary restraining order already in place…. [Lowery was elected as Commissioner on August 2, 2018. -EV]

The trial court apparently entered another a temporary restraining order on November 4, 2019, which enjoined Appellants from distributing certain material about Appellee. The trial court then granted Appellee's requests for injunctive relief ….

The court concluded that the trial court (the Chancery Court) lacked jurisdiction, because its jurisdiction excluded, by statute, any claims "for unliquidated damages for injuries to person or character," and that meant that the accompanying claims for injunctive and declaratory relief couldn't be decided by the trial court, either. In the process, the court noted:

First, we note that it is not entirely clear that the trial court in fact had jurisdiction to enjoin the alleged defamatory behavior here. Recently, we explained that the traditional rule has been that "equity does not enjoin a libel or slander and that the only remedy for defamation is an action for damages." In re Conservatorship of Turner (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014) (affirming an injunction on speech issued by a circuit court). As more fully explained in Kyritsis v. Vieron  (Tenn. Ct. App. 1964),

The general rule … is: "Equity does not have jurisdiction to act for the sole purpose of restraining the utterance of a libel or slander, regardless of whether the defamation is personal or relates to a property right. … It is clearly established by the large majority of cases that in the absence of some independent ground for the invocation of equitable jurisdiction, equity will not grant an injunction restraining the publication of matter defaming the plaintiff personally, as distinguished from his property interests."

But see In re Conservatorship of Turner (collecting cases) ("There have, however, been a number of inroads made on the broad rule against injunctions to enjoin defamatory statements."). Thus, it is unclear whether Tennessee law provides that a request for an injunction enjoining speech is clearly sufficient to invoke the chancery court's jurisdiction.

For more on the broader question of anti-libel injunction, see this article.

Congratulations to Stuart Breakstone and Adrian Vivar-Alcalde, who represented the Redmonds, and to our coblogger Sam Bray, whose article, The System of Equitable Remedies, 63 UCLA L. Rev. 530 (2016), was cited in a portion of the opinion that I didn't excerpt.