By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The state Court of Appeals on Monday reinstated a defamation lawsuit against Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield for publishing false information on his blog about a Democratic candidate for the state House in 2008.
The panel found that the lower court erred in throwing out the $750,000 lawsuit filed by former candidate Roger Byrge last year, and that the case could result in a finding of “actual malice” by Campfield. (Note: Full opinion is HERE.)
“Politics may be a rough and tumble endeavor, but, contrary to the vintage Cole Porter song, ‘anything goes’ will not suffice when it comes to publishing factual falsehoods about political rivals,” Judge D. Michael Swiney wrote in the opinion. “A public figure, even a politician, is neither totally immune from nor totally unprotected by the law of defamation.”
Campfield, who had a long history of provocative statements, was defeated in the Republican primary last month. His term doesn’t end until after the general election in November.
Campfield said in a deposition that he had relied on preliminary information from House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin when he falsely wrote on his blog that Byrge had multiple drug arrests and that the mug shots were “gold.” It was later determined the arrest record belonged to Byrge’s son.
The elder Byrge lost the House race to Republican Chad Faulkner by fewer than 400 votes and later filed suit in Campbell County.
Casada said in court filings that he did not intend for Campfield to post the information on the blog before it was confirmed. But Campfield said his 2011 deposition that he didn’t feel a responsibility to verify what he had been told by Casada, or to apologize for getting it wrong.
Jacksboro Circuit Judge John McAfee in throwing out the lawsuit last year acknowledged that Campfield had gotten it wrong on his blog, but agreed with defense attorneys that the lawmaker did not know the information provided by House GOP leadership was false when he posted it. McAfee chalked the disagreement up to the “dog-eat-dog world” of campaigns.
“Politics are politics, and it’s a big boys and big girls game,” McAfee said at the time. “That’s just the way it is.”
In Monday’s opinion Swiney disagreed, noting that Casada said he told Campfield that the caucus “may have” information about Byrge’s past.
“Reasonable minds could consider it at least reckless to publish information tending to tarnish someone’s reputation on the basis of ‘may have,'” Swiney wrote, adding that Campfield made no attempt to verify what he had published.
Campfield has often drawn national attention and sometimes ridicule for his polarizing comments, as well for sponsoring contentious bills on social issues. They included the “Don’t Say Gay” proposal seeking to ban teachers from discussing gay issues with students and another that would have cut welfare benefits to parents whose children aren’t doing well in school.
Most recently, Campfield made national news with a blog post comparing the federal health care law to the forced transportation of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. “Democrats bragging about the number of mandatory sign-ups for Obamacare is like Germans bragging about the number of mandatory sign-ups for ‘train rides’ for Jews in the ’40s,” he wrote.
Campfield’s remark drew swift condemnation and demands for apology from members both parties — including from Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.