Activists Win Free Speech Fight in Clarksville, Tenn.

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 30, 2009

Arlington, Va—Evidently you can fight city hall—and fight private developers who use city hall’s power, too.

In an order issued on March 26, 2009, Judge C.L. “Buck” Rogers of the Circuit Court for Sumner County, Tenn., vindicated the right to protest government abuse by dismissing the libel lawsuit brought by Richard Swift, a developer who is a former member of the Clarksville City Council, and Wayne Wilkinson, a member of Clarksville’s Downtown District Partnership, against members of the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition (CPRC).  Swift and Wilkinson sued the CPRC because its members criticized them for supporting Clarksville’s controversial redevelopment plan, which authorizes the use of eminent domain for private development.  In a newspaper ad, the CPRC noted that both Swift and Wilkinson are developers and said, “This Redevelopment Plan is of the developers, by the developers, and for the developers.”

The court ruled, “Debate on public issues shall be uninhibited [and] wide open. . . .  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.”

“The court’s decision is a tremendous victory for everyone who speaks out against the abuse of eminent domain,” said Bert Gall, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents the CPRC in defense of their free speech rights.  “The decision puts thin-skinned politicians and developers on notice:  If you file a frivolous lawsuit against people just for criticizing your public actions, your case will swiftly be thrown out of court.”

Across the country, in places like Renton, Wash., and Freeport, Texas, there has been an ominous trend of politicians and developers using frivolous litigation to suppress the speech of home and business owners who oppose the abuse of eminent domain for private development.  The CPRC’s victory in Clarksville resoundingly reaffirms that the First Amendment protects that speech.

“I am thrilled that the court reached the right decision to protect my right to free speech,” said Joyce Vanderbilt, a member of the CPRC.  “Swift and Wilkinson tried to bully us with this lawsuit, and the court just told them that they should never have brought it in the first place.”

“We won this fight not just for us, but for every home and business owner who gets sued just for speaking out against eminent domain abuse,” said Pam Vandeveer.  “I’m glad that this is still a free country.”

Although the free speech fight on behalf of the Clarksville activists is over, the effort to reform Tennessee’s eminent domain laws rages on.  The Institute for Justice recently graded Tennessee’s eminent domain legislative reforms as a “D-minus,” stating that much more needs to happen to protect Tennesseans from eminent domain abuse.  Tennesseans have much less protection from eminent domain abuse than in states like Georgia and Florida, which have enacted strong laws.  Senator Paul Stanley and Representative Curry Todd have introduced a reform bill that would move Tennessee up into an A grade because it better defines “public use” and “blight”—two key reforms that are needed if property is to be safe from eminent domain for private gain.

Jerry Martin of Barrett, Johnston & Parsley in Nashville serves as local counsel for the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition.