The Law Office of Daniel A. Horwitz, Esq.

October 28, 2020

Horwitz Secures First-Ever Exoneration of Nashville Man Wrongfully Convicted of Murder; Joseph Webster Released, Has Conviction Vacated After 14 Years In Prison

Following a four-year effort to exonerate Joseph Webster for his wrongful conviction of a 1998 murder, the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office has announced that it “no longer has confidence in the conviction of Mr. Webster” and recommends that “Mr. Webster’s conviction be vacated and the charges against him dismissed.”  Acting on its Conviction Review Unit’s recommendation, the District Attorney’s Office filed a formal Notice of Intent to vacate and dismiss the charges against Mr. Webster on October 29, 2020.  Mr. Webster’s exoneration will be the first in Nashville history since the Davidson County Conviction Review Unit was established in 2016.

“After a decade and a half in prison for a murder that he did not commit, I am overjoyed that Joseph Webster’s wrongful conviction will finally be overturned,” said Daniel Horwitz, Webster’s attorney. “Mr. Webster is immeasurably grateful to those who took the time to conduct a thorough reinvestigation of his case and see that this wrong was righted.  Mr. Webster is also thinking of the entire Owens family at this time, which has to process the painful news of learning that the wrong person was convicted of committing this brutal murder.” A hearing that will enable Mr. Webster’s immediate release from prison is scheduled for November 10, 2020 at 9:00 a.m.  Webster’s case also resulted in the Conviction Review Unit’s first reinvestigation of a potential wrongful murder conviction in Nashville’s history.

Webster’s conviction was formally vacated on November 10, 2020.  He was released from prison the same day.  Selected case documents and media coverage appear below.

Daniel Horwitz is an innocence and post-conviction attorney based in Nashville, Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from Horwitz, you can do so using the following form:

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Selected Case Documents:

*Order Granting Petition for Writ of Error Coram Nobis Vacating Conviction

District Attorney’s Notice of Intent to Vacate

Petitioner’s Motion to Reopen Post-Conviction Petition and Petition to Issue Writ of Error Coram Nobis

District Attorney’s Response

Selected Media Coverage:

-USA Today: ‘Oh, it’s been so long’: Mother collapses with joy after wrongfully convicted son freed

-The Tennessean: Judge overturns murder conviction of Nashville man serving life in prison in 1998 case

-The Tennessean: Nashville DA’s office moves to overturn conviction of man serving life for 1998 murder

-New York Times: Imprisoned Nearly 15 Years, but Now Cleared of a Murder He Didn’t Commit

-NBC: Tennessee man freed after nearly 15 years in prison for wrongful murder conviction

-CNN: Tennessee man exonerated after serving 15 years for a murder he didn’t commit

-The Tennessean: Nashville judge hears arguments for dropping charges against Joseph Webster

-The Tennessean: ‘The conviction is wrongful’: Attorney discusses Nashville man’s life sentence case

-The Nashville Scene: DA’s Office Seeks Release for Nashville Man Convicted of 1998 Murder

-NPR-WPLN: Nashville District Attorney Agrees To Review Conviction In 1998 Murder Case

-NPR-WPLN: Investigation: After Pledging To Examine Innocence Claims, Nashville DA Has Yet To Open A Case

New York Post: Tennessee man walks free after 1998 murder conviction is overturned

-People: Tennessee Man, 41, Exonerated After Judge Overturns 1998 Murder Conviction

-Channel 5: Joseph Webster adjusting to freedom after judge dismisses murder conviction

-Channel 4: Joseph Webster reunites with family after judge vacates murder conviction 14 years into prison sentence

-Fox 17: Nashville man imprisoned for murder for almost 15 years may walk free

-Fox 17: FERRIER FILES: Nashville murder conviction investigation to be reopened

-Fox 17: FERRIER FILES: Is Nashville man serving a life sentence innocent?

-Fox 17: FERRIER FILES: Imprisoned man’s DNA not on murder weapon

-Channel 5: Wrongful conviction requests are getting a second look

-The Tennessean: District attorney redesigns ‘burdensome’ process of searching for wrongful convictions

October 26, 2020

Horwitz Secures $1 Million Judgment for Nashville Woman Terrorized by Ex-NYPD Officer’s Home Invasion

Federal District Court Judge Eli Richardson has formally approved a $1 million civil judgment in favor of Conese Halliburton against ex-NYPD Officer Michael Reynolds, who was convicted in 2019 of multiple crimes related to a racial slur-laden Nashville home invasion.  After being sentenced to jail by Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Mark Fishburn, Reynolds resigned from the NYPD in disgrace before termination proceedings could be completed.  While he was serving his jail sentence, Ms. Halliburton also sued ex-Officer Reynolds in federal court, after which Reynolds declared bankruptcy.

Following litigation in both the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York and the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, a $1 million civil judgment has now been entered against Reynolds regarding the incident, which comes in addition to his ongoing criminal sentence.  The court’s order reflects that Reynolds has also admitted that all of the allegations in Ms. Halliburton’s Complaint—including her allegations regarding misconduct by other NYPD Officers—are true, and that Reynolds has stipulated to liability regarding Ms. Halliburton’s claims for trespass, trespass to chattels, conversion, assault, violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, negligence, negligence per se, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

“Ms. Halliburton promised from the beginning that she would hold ex-Officer Reynolds fully accountable for his criminal misconduct and obtain justice for her family regarding this despicable incident,” said Nashville attorney Daniel A. Horwitz, who represented Ms. Halliburton.  “We are certainly pleased with this development, but we also aren’t finished here.”  Selected case documents and media coverage are linked below.

Daniel Horwitz represents victims who have suffered serious injuries as a result of criminal and other misconduct in Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you can do using the form below.

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Selected Case Documents:

*Final Order Granting $1 Million Judgment

Plaintiff’s Complaint

Transcript of Plea Hearing, Davidson County Criminal Court

Transcript of Sentencing Hearing, Davidson County Criminal Court

Selected Media Coverage:

-The Tennessean: Ex-NYPD cop who terrorized Nashville residents during break-in must pay $1M, judge rules

-WKRN: Ex-NYPD officer ordered to pay $1M after breaking into 12South home, using racial slurs

-New York Times: Officer Who Admitted Making Racist Threat Quits After an Uproar

-New York Post: White NYPD cop who broke into black woman’s home, hurled racist slurs ordered to pay $1M

-Fox 17: Judge approves $1M judgment against ex-NYPD officer who broke into Nashville woman’s home

-New York Daily News: Disgraced ex-NYPD cop who forced his way into woman’s Nashville home must pay her $1 million

-Insurance Journal: Former NYPD Officer Ordered to Pay $1M Over Tennessee Break-In

-The Root: Former NYPD Officer Ordered to Pay $1M Over Tennessee Break-InEx-NYPD Officer Ordered to Pay $1 Million to Black Tennessee Woman Whose Home He Broke Into Before Hurling Racial Slurs

-ABC: Woman files $5 million suit against officer who broke into her home, yelled racial slurs

-The Tennessean: Airbnb terror ends in jail time for drunk NYPD cop who broke into Nashville home, threatened residents

-New York Post: Racist ex-NYPD cop who broke into stranger’s Nashville home files for bankruptcy

-WSMV: NYPD officer arrested for assaulting Nashville family while he was on vacation resigns

-The Tennessean: Woman files $5M lawsuit against ex-NYPD cop who broke into her Nashville home and threatened her

-CNN: Tennessee woman wants a New York police officer who barged into her home and was accused of a racial slur to be fired

-New York Post: Activists want NYPD cop Michael Reynolds fired for racist tirade in Nashville

-US News and World Report: NYPD Officer Accused of Home Break-In, Attack Enters Plea

-NBC News: A white NYPD officer broke into a black woman’s home and threatened her. Activists want him fired.

-Newsweek: NYPD OFFICER PLEADS GUILTY TO ASSAULT AND TRESPASSING FOR BREAKING INTO NASHVILLE FAMILY’S HOME AND THREATENING THEM WITH THE N-WORD

-Reason: New York Cop Finally Quits—More Than a Year After He Broke Into a Woman’s Home and Threatened Her

-The Grio: White NYPD officer, who spewed racist threats to a Black woman after breaking into her home, resigns

-The Tennessean: NYPD cop takes a plea deal after breaking into a Nashville house next to his Airbnb

-WTVF: Attorney: Resignation of NYPD cop in Nashville racist attack long overdue

September 15, 2020

Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Rules in Favor of School Board Members, Invalidates Censorship Clause in Ex-MNPS Director Shawn Joseph’s Severance Agreement

In an order issued earlier this afternoon, Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled in favor of Plaintiffs Amy Frogge, Fran Bush, and Jill Speering, who earlier this year sued Metro and ex-MNPS Director Shawn Joseph over the legality of the School Board censorship clause contained in Joseph’s severance agreement.  In a Memorandum Order, Chancellor Lyle struck down the censorship clause as unconstitutional on multiple grounds and permanently enjoined its enforcement.

Among other things, the clause prohibited elected School Board members even from truthfully criticizing “Dr. Joseph and his performance as Director of Schools.”  Upon review of it, Chancellor Lyle ruled that the clause violated the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, unlawfully prohibited them from speaking honestly with their constituents, and violated established Tennessee public policy.  As a result, the clause was invalidated as unenforceable.  Metro and Joseph will additionally be required to pay the Plaintiffs’ “reasonable costs and attorney’s fees,” which have been pledged to charity.

“This is a landmark victory on behalf of both elected officials’ free speech rights and citizens’ right to hear from their elected representatives,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who represented all three Plaintiffs.  “Metro and Joseph should be ashamed of their efforts to gag elected officials and prevent them from speaking honestly with their constituents about issues of tremendous public importance, and their illegal attempt to do so should serve as a costly warning to other government officials to think twice before violating the First Amendment.”

Daniel Horwitz is a First Amendment lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you can do using the form below.

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September 11, 2020

Horwitz Wins Lawsuit Striking Down Politician-Favoring Criminal Defamation Law, Secures $69,882.37 Fee Award

In a resounding win for free speech, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle has issued an order striking down Tennessee’s criminal defamation law prohibiting false “campaign literature in opposition to any candidate in any election.”  Finding that the law represented an unlawful content-based, viewpoint-based, and identity-based speech restriction that could not withstand scrutiny under the First Amendment or the Tennessee Constitution, Chancellor Lyle invalidated the law as unconstitutional.

“Tennesseans have a constitutional right to mock and satirize politicians, and candidates for office cannot lawfully use the threat of a criminal prosecution to inhibit criticism,” Horwitz said in a statement to The Tennessean. “Tennesseans For Sensible Election Laws is proud to have won this important case and made Tennessee’s democratic process freer once again.”

Along with the win, in an order entered on September 11, 2020, Horwitz additionally secured a final judgment “awarding Plaintiff recovery of $69,882.37 in attorneys’ fees and expenses.

Daniel Horwitz is a free speech and election lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you can do using the form below.

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August 19, 2020

Horwitz Wins Election Law and First Amendment Appeal Striking Down Discriminatory Campaign Finance Statutes, Secures $50,218.49 Fee Award

In a unanimous panel opinion, the Tennessee Court of Appeals has affirmed a ruling by Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle that two of Tennessee’s campaign finance statutes unlawfully discriminate against non-partisan speakers and violate the First Amendment.  As a result, the trial win by Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws—represented by First Amendment attorney Daniel A. Horwitz—was “affirmed in all respects and remanded for further proceedings.”  Upon remand, Horwitz’s client was awarded $50,218.49 in attorney’s fees, costs, and interest.  A formal notice that the judgment had been paid and received in full was filed with the court on August 19, 2020.

“Political parties cannot lawfully censor non-partisan speakers while reserving special treatment in the political process for themselves,” Horwitz wrote in a statement to The Tennessean. “Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws is proud of this historic First Amendment victory, which makes Tennessee’s democratic process just a little bit freer for everyone.”

Daniel Horwitz is a free speech and election lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you can do using the form below.

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June 16, 2020

Horwitz Wins Grant of Second-Ever Anti-SLAPP Petition Under the Tennessee Public Participation Act, Secures $26,500.00 Attorney’s Fees and Sanctions Award

The second-ever anti-SLAPP petition filed under the Tennessee Public Participation Act (TPPA)—Tennessee’s new anti-SLAPP statute—has officially been granted, accompanied by the largest fee-shifting award ($26,500.00) ever awarded in a defamation case filed in Tennessee.  The final order—granted by Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Joe P. Binkley—comes on the heels of a February 2020 ruling by Wilson County General Sessions Judge Barry Tatum granting the first-ever petition to dismiss a plaintiff’s claims under the TPPA.

The ruling comes after a bizarre set of circumstances in which a Nashville man, Carl Vonhartman, sued a woman, Kortni Butterton, who had rejected him on a dating app after she called 911, sought an order of protection against him, and testified at the order of protection hearing.  In response to the lawsuit, the woman filed a 361-page, 18-exhibit TPPA Petition to Dismiss all of Mr. Vonhartman’s claims and sought an award of attorney’s fees and sanctions regarding them.  In advance of the scheduled hearing on the petition, Mr. Vonhartman stipulated “that his Complaint failed to state any cognizable claim for relief against the Defendant,” that Ms. Butterton’s TPPA petition should be granted, and that “judgment shall be entered in favor of the Defendant against the Plaintiff in the amount of twenty-six thousand and five hundred dollars ($26,500.00)—inclusive of all available claims for attorney’s fees, discretionary costs, and sanctions—pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 20-17-107(a), Tennessee Code Annotated § 20- 12-119(c), and Tennessee Code Annotated § 4-21-1003(c).”  A formal notice that the $26,500.00 judgment had been paid and received in full was filed with the court by Daniel A. Horwitz, Ms. Butterton’s attorney, yesterday afternoon.

“Ms. Butterton is pleased to have prevailed spectacularly against this shameful SLAPP-suit and to receive an unprecedented $26,500.00 in attorney’s fees and sanctions from the man who unsuccessfully sued her,” said Horwitz.  “Tennessee’s new anti-SLAPP statute makes bogus lawsuits like this one extremely costly for those who seek to intimidate others through the legal process, so let this outcome serve as a stark warning to anyone else who is thinking about making the same mistake.”

“This case should also send a clear message to anyone who believes they are in danger,” Horwitz added.  “If you believe someone is going to hurt you, do not be afraid to seek help, and do not let fear of a bogus lawsuit deter you from protecting yourself.  Anyone can file a frivolous lawsuit, but in the event that that happens, rest assured that the law will protect you.”

Selected case documents and media coverage of the case appear below.

Selected Case Documents:

Plaintiff’s Complaint

Defendant’s Motion and TPPA Petition to Dismiss and Exhibits A–R

Final Order and Entry of Judgment for Attorney’s Fees, Costs, and Sanctions

Notice of Satisfaction of Judgment

Selected Media Coverage:

-WSMV: Court orders payment in dating app case

-WSMV: Lawsuit filed against woman who requested order of protection

-TechDirt: Anti-SLAPP Law Turns Bogus Defamation Lawsuit Into A $26,500 Legal Bill For The Plaintiff

Daniel Horwitz is a free speech lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you can do using the form below.

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June 13, 2020

Horwitz Client Wins Sixth Circuit Appeal, Upholds District Court Order Dismissing SLAPP-Suit

In the last chapter of year-long saga, the dismissal of Déjà Vu Showgirls’s SLAPP-suit against Linda Schipani—previously dismissed outright for failure to state any cognizable claim for relief—has been unanimously upheld by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Said Daniel Horwitz, Schipani’s attorney:

“Deja Vu has lost the same case so many times it’s difficult to keep up, but the end result is always the same: Complete vindication for Linda Schipani—who will continue to be a successful, respected businesswoman despite the best efforts of her misbehaving neighbor—and a total loss for Déjà Vu, which has become synonymous with frivolous litigation and failure.  Déjà Vu and its contractors should take this resounding loss as a lesson and stop filing baseless SLAPP-suits against their neighbors for exercising their First Amendment rights going forward.”

Déjà Vu Showgirls is a strip club located on Church St. in Nashville.  In an effort to enhance its customer experience, one of the services that Déjà Vu (briefly) provided its customers was valet parking: A service that ticked off its adjacent neighbors when its valet contractor—a company called “The Parking Guys”—trespassed on its neighbors’ property, parked vehicles in neighboring businesses’ parking lots without permission, obstructed road access, and blocked their ingress and egress.  The fact that Déjà Vu carried on its disruptive valet parking operation both without a valid permit to operate and outside of permitted hours didn’t help matters, either, leading to a permanent valet permit for the strip club being denied by city officials.

Unsatisfied that it could not continue to provide valet services to its customers, Déjà Vu and its valet contractor convinced themselves that they had been the victims of an elaborate anti-stripper conspiracy.  Thus, to vindicate their (imaginary) victimization, Déjà Vu and The Parking Guys took to state and federal court, where they sued Metro’s Traffic and Parking Commission, Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell, and two of Déjà Vu’s neighbors—Linda Schipani and Lee Molette—asserting laughably ridiculous claims.  The claims that Déjà Vu and The Parking Guys filed against their neighbors over absolutely immunized testimony that their neighbors had given to the Traffic and Parking Commission, in particular, were legally baseless for approximately half a dozen reasons, and all of them repeatedly failed accordingly.

When the dust settled, Déjà Vu lost essentially the same claims before one Commission and the following five separate courts:

  1. The Davidson County Chancery Court, which denied all claims and held further that: “The Petitioner asserts before this Court that the Councilman and others who spoke against the permit are actually opposing the permits due to the adult nature of the Déjà Vu business, but the administrative record contains no evidence that this is the case, and indeed the record reflects the Petitioner did not raise this concern to the Commission.”
  2. The Tennessee Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Chancery Court’s denial, ordered The Parking Guys to pay Schipani’s appellate costs, and held further that “there was material evidence to support the Commission’s decision, and that its decision was not arbitrary.”
  3. The Tennessee Supreme Court, which kept the Tennessee Court of Appeals’ decision in place and denied any further effort to appeal in state court;
  4. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, which also dismissed all claims alleged due to the Plaintiffs’ failure even to state a legally cognizable claim for relief; and
  5. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which similarly affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of all claims alleged on the basis that—as Mrs. Schipani emphasized in her briefing—“[t]he complaint does not allege membership in a protected class, or that there was any discriminatory animus on account of class membership. . . .  In fact, the complaint contains no indication of any class membership at all.  Plaintiffs therefore failed to state a claim under § 1985 against any of the defendants in their complaint.”

The deadline to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court having expired yesterday, Déjà Vu’s SLAPP-suit and its utterly failed efforts to sue its Councilman and neighbors over testimony that the strip club did not like have officially come to an ignominious end.

Daniel Horwitz is a free speech lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you can do using the form below.

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February 29, 2020

Horwitz Declared Among “Best of the Best” Lawyers in Nashville by The Nashville Post Again

Prestigious legal list cites Horwitz’s “high-profile client roster,” litigation success against powerful litigants

Once again, Daniel Horwitz, a constitutional lawyer and impact litigator, has been named to The Nashville Post’s “Legal in Charge” list for 2020, which recognizes “Middle Tennessee’s cream of the crop” for legal services.  The honor cites Horwitz’s “high-profile client roster” and litigation success on behalf of underdogs against powerful litigants.  Horwitz was previously named to the list in 2019 after he “successfully petitioned to move mayoral election” and successfully “represented Community Oversight Now,” the group responsible for instituting Nashville’s police oversight board.

Daniel Horwitz is constitutional lawyer based in Nashville, Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from Horwitz, you can do so using the following form:

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Posted in: Uncategorized
February 13, 2020

Horwitz Secures Grant of First-Ever Anti-SLAPP Petition In Tennessee in Lawsuit Regarding Negative Yelp Review

On July 1, 2019, the Tennessee Public Participation Act—Tennessee’s first meaningful anti-SLAPP statute—took effect. The statute dramatically expanded the scope of speech that receives heightened legal protection in Tennessee. It also equips people targeted by Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (“SLAPP-suits”) with important tools to secure the dismissal of meritless claims early on in litigation. Perhaps most importantly, the TPPA allows prevailing defendants to get their full attorney’s fees paid by a losing plaintiff if a petition to dismiss is granted. Previously, prevailing defendants were (generally) only able to recover a maximum of $10,000 under Tennessee’s frivolous lawsuit statute, and they were only eligible to do so if a plaintiff failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Several defendants quickly benefited from the TPPA’s added protections after the statute took effect, resulting in plaintiffs quickly dropping defamation claims or providing additional bases for dismissal in speech-based lawsuits that were ultimately dismissed on other grounds. Today, however, in a ruling by Wilson County General Sessions Judge Barry Tatum, the first-ever petition to dismiss a plaintiff’s claims under the Tennessee Public Participation Act has been granted.

The case arose out of a lawsuit filed by Dr. Kaveer Nandigam and his corporation, Nandigam Neurology, PLC, against Kelly Beavers regarding a negative Yelp review. After Ms. Beavers took her father to see Dr. Nandigam and had a terrible experience, she exercised her First Amendment right to leave a negative review on Yelp!, a popular consumer review website. Dr. Nandigam quickly threatened to sue her if she did not remove the review, and ultimately, he did sue her for defamation and false light invasion of privacy regarding it when she refused.

After Dr. Nandigam dismissed and then refiled his lawsuit against her, Ms. Beavers filed an immediate Petition to Dismiss the Plaintiffs’ claims under the TPPA. Earlier this morning, her petition was granted. Thus, pending a potential appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, all of the Plaintiffs’ claims against her have been dismissed with prejudice.

“This is a huge win for Kelly Beavers and the First Amendment, and it’s a huge loss for Dr. Nandigam and anyone else who would abuse the legal process to promote censorship of honest, critical consumer reviews,” said Daniel Horwitz, a speech defense lawyer who represented Ms. Beavers. Ms. Beavers’ claims for attorney’s fees and sanctions against both Dr. Nandigam and his attorney, Bennett Hirschhorn, remain pending. Daniel Horwitz is a free speech lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you may do using the form below.  

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July 1, 2019

The “Tennessee Public Participation Act,”⁠ Tennessee’s First-Ever Meaningful Anti-SLAPP Law⁠, Takes Effect Today

By Tennessee First Amendment, Speech Defense, and Anti-SLAPP Lawyer Daniel Horwitz:

If you woke up this morning feeling freer to speak your mind, there’s a reason: A little-noticed law with huge free speech benefits takes effect today. As of July 1, 2019, the “Tennessee Public Participation Act”—Tennessee’s first-ever meaningful Anti-SLAPP law—became effective and affords those who are sued for their speech a host of critical legal benefits.

Because litigation is often prohibitively expensive, bad actors can often intimidate critics into silence by threatening or filing baseless speech-based lawsuits asserting claims like defamation (libel or slander), false light invasion of privacy, business disparagement, or other questionable torts. When faced with the prospect of having to spend tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend one’s legal right, for instance, to leave an unfavorable review of a business, self-censorship can also become an extremely attractive proposition. The result of such self-censorship is to undermine both individuals’ right to free speech and the public’s right to hear and receive information.

It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of defamation and other speech-based lawsuits are not filed because a person has suffered an actual legal injury. Instead, their purpose is to punish people for lawfully exercising their right to speak freely about a topic that the suing plaintiff wants to censor. Given the cost of litigation, historically, such lawsuits have also been disturbingly effective.

To provide a counterbalance to the financial threat posed by bogus defamation lawsuits, laws aimed at deterring “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (Anti-SLAPP laws) afford speakers a number of significant legal protections, all of which are critical to safeguarding free speech and promoting the free exchange of information and ideas. First, Anti-SLAPP laws help deter bad actors from filing baseless lawsuits against people for lawfully exercising their free speech rights in the first place. Second, the best Anti-SLAPP laws provide people who are sued for exercising their First Amendment rights an efficient and expeditious means of getting frivolous speech-based lawsuits dismissed quickly. Third, Anti-SLAPP laws commonly provide a mechanism to punish abusive litigants and attorneys who file baseless defamation claims with significant monetary sanctions. Fourth, Anti-SLAPP laws frequently give people who are sued for exercising their free speech rights the right to recoup whatever attorney’s fees and court costs they incurred for having to defend against a meritless speech-based lawsuit.

Happily, beginning today, Tennessee now boasts an Anti-SLAPP law that affords speakers all of these benefits. Until today, Tennessee only had a limited Anti-SLAPP law that was narrowly restricted to statements made to government agencies.  Fortunately, though, earlier this year, Tennessee enacted the “Tennessee Public Participation Act” to protect Tennesseans’ right to free speech, which became effective July 1, 2019.  Thus, from today onward, the Randy Rayburns and Linda Schipanis and Bari Hardins of the world can now wield a powerful protective weapon against bad actors’ efforts to censor and intimidate them through frivolous speech-based lawsuits.

The Tennessee Public Participation Act has dramatically expanded the scope of speech that receives heightened legal protection in Tennessee. Under the Act, every “communication made in connection with a matter of public concern”—a term that is defined broadly and expressly encompasses statements involving issues of “health or safety” and “community well-being”—”that falls within the protection of the United States Constitution or the Tennessee Constitution” will come within the ambit of the law’s protection. In other words: Most statements made by citizens within the State of Tennessee—including social media posts and blog posts—now receive heightened protection against speech-based lawsuits, including defamation lawsuits, false light invasion of privacy lawsuits, or lawsuits that assert claims such as “defamation by implication or innuendo.”  Defendants who are sued for claims such as “abuse of process” or “malicious prosecution” will frequently enjoy heightened protection under the Tennessee Public Participation Act as well.

Censorship has always been rampant, and it comes in many forms—from firing people who speak out about misconduct in the workplace to libel and slander lawsuits. More than anything, in recent years, the permanence of the internet combined with the reach and speed of social media have made it more attractive than ever to try to censor others through the legal system before harmful information—whether accurate or not—reaches every corner of cyberspace. The good news is that the Tennessee Public Participation Act will now afford significant protection to people who speak out about topics like abuse and other important issues. The text of the law appears below.

Daniel Horwitz is a First Amendment and speech defense lawyer based in Nashville, Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from Horwitz, you can do so using the following form:

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The Tennessee Public Participation Act (Effective July 1, 2019):

20-17-101. This chapter shall be known and may be cited as the “Tennessee Public Participation Act.”

20-17-102. The purpose of this chapter is to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition, to speak freely, to associate freely, and to participate in government to the fullest extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of persons to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury. This chapter is consistent with and necessary to implement the rights protected by Article I, §§ 19 and 23, of the Constitution of Tennessee, as well as by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and shall be construed broadly to effectuate its purposes and intent.

20-17-103. As used in this chapter:

(1) “Communication” means the making or submitting of a statement or document in any form or medium, including oral, written, audiovisual, or electronic;

(2) “Exercise of the right of association” means exercise of the constitutional right to join together to take collective action on a matter of public concern that falls within the protection of the United States Constitution or the Tennessee Constitution;

(3) “Exercise of the right of free speech” means a communication made in connection with a matter of public concern or religious expression that falls within the protection of the United States Constitution or the Tennessee Constitution;

(4) “Exercise of the right to petition” means a communication that falls within the protection of the United States Constitution or the Tennessee Constitution and:

(A) Is intended to encourage consideration or review of an issue by a federal, state, or local legislative, executive, judicial, or other governmental body; or

(B) Is intended to enlist public participation in an effort to effect consideration of an issue by a federal, state, or local legislative, executive, judicial, or other governmental body;

(5) “Legal action” means a claim, cause of action, petition, cross-claim, or counterclaim or any request for legal or equitable relief initiated against a private party;

(6) “Matter of public concern” includes an issue related to:

(A) Health or safety;

(B) Environmental, economic, or community well-being;

(C) The government;

(D) A public official or public figure;

(E) A good, product, or service in the marketplace;

(F) A literary, musical, artistic, political, theatrical, or audiovisual work; or

(G) Any other matter deemed by a court to involve a matter of public concern; and

(7) “Party” does not include a governmental entity, agency, or employee.

20-17-104.

(a) If a legal action is filed in response to a party’s exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association, that party may petition the court to dismiss the legal action.

(b) Such a petition may be filed within sixty (60) calendar days from the date of service of the legal action or, in the court’s discretion, at any later time that the court deems proper.

(c) A response to the petition, including any opposing affidavits, may be served and filed by the opposing party no less than five (5) days before the hearing or, in the court’s discretion, at any earlier time that the court deems proper.

(d) All discovery in the legal action is stayed upon the filing of a petition under this section. The stay of discovery remains in effect until the entry of an order ruling on the petition. The court may allow specified and limited discovery relevant to the petition upon a showing of good cause.

20-17-105.

(a) The petitioning party has the burden of making a prima facie case that a legal action against the petitioning party is based on, relates to, or is in response to that party’s exercise of the right to free speech, right to petition, or right of association.

(b) If the petitioning party meets this burden, the court shall dismiss the legal action unless the responding party establishes a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in the legal action.

(c) Notwithstanding subsection (b), the court shall dismiss the legal action if the petitioning party establishes a valid defense to the claims in the legal action.

(d) The court may base its decision on supporting and opposing sworn affidavits stating admissible evidence upon which the liability or defense is based and on other admissible evidence presented by the parties.

(e) If the court dismisses a legal action pursuant to a petition filed under this chapter, the legal action or the challenged claim is dismissed with prejudice.

(f) If the court determines the responding party established a likelihood of prevailing on a claim:

(1) The fact that the court made that determination and the substance of the determination may not be admitted into evidence later in the case; and

(2) The determination does not affect the burden or standard of proof in the proceeding.

20-17-106. The court’s order dismissing or refusing to dismiss a legal action pursuant to a petition filed under this chapter is immediately appealable as a matter of right to the court of appeals. The Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure applicable to appeals as a matter of right governs such appeals.

20-17-107.

(a) If the court dismisses a legal action pursuant to a petition filed under this chapter, the court shall award to the petitioning party:

(1) Court costs, reasonable attorney’s fees, discretionary costs, and other expenses incurred in filing and prevailing upon the petition; and

(2) Any additional relief, including sanctions, that the court determines necessary to deter repetition of the conduct by the party who brought the legal action or by others similarly situated.

(b) If the court finds that a petition filed under this chapter was frivolous or was filed solely for the purpose of unnecessary delay, and makes specific written findings and conclusions establishing such finding, the court may award to the responding party court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in opposing the petition.

20-17-108.  Nothing in this chapter:

(1) Applies to an enforcement action that is brought in the name of the state or a political subdivision of this state by the attorney general, a district attorney general, or a county or municipal attorney;

(2) Can result in findings or determinations that are admissible in evidence at any later stage of the underlying legal action or in any subsequent legal action;

(3) Affects or limits the authority of a court to award sanctions, costs, attorney’s fees, or any other relief available under any other statute, court rule, or other authority;

(4) Affects, limits, or precludes the right of any party to assert any defense, remedy, immunity, or privilege otherwise authorized by law;

(5) Affects the substantive law governing any asserted claim;

(6) Creates a private right of action; or

(7) Creates any cause of action for any government entity, agency, or
employee.

20-17-109. This chapter is intended to provide an additional substantive remedy to protect the constitutional rights of parties and to supplement any remedies which are otherwise available to those parties under common law, statutory law, or constitutional law or under the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.

20-17-110. If any provision of this chapter or the application thereof to any person or circumstance is held invalid, such invalidity shall not affect other provisions or applications of this act that can be given effect without the invalid provision or application, and to that end the provisions of this act are declared to be severable.