The Commercial Appeal will not be forced to release comments and identifying information about those who commented on stories related to the public controversies over the reorganization of Shelby County’s public schools, the newspaper reports. U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays issued a ruling Thursday night rejecting the Shelby County Commission’s motion to compel The Commercial Appeal to release that information. The commission’s lawyers from the firm Baker Donelson had filed a motion last week asking the judge to force The Commercial Appeal to comply with a July subpoena request asking for the identities of all online commenters to 45 stories that ran between Nov. 19, 2010, and July 12, 2012.
In denying the motion, Mays wrote that the information would not be relevant to the case.
“The Commission’s claim that the information it seeks concerning the opinions of the general readership of The Commercial Appeal is relevant to determining whether racial considerations were a motivating factor in the Tennessee General Assembly’s decision to enact the Municipal School Acts is not well taken,” the judge ruled.
“The information sought by the Commission is not relevant to the underlying issue to be decided and is not an appropriate subject of discovery in this case.”
The commission claimed that harvesting some comments and identifying information about the commenters could help them prove that new state laws enabling new municipal school districts in suburban Shelby County were motivated at least in part by racially discriminatory intent.
Attorneys for The Commercial Appeal said Thursday the law firm representing the Shelby County Commission has run afoul of the First Amendment, two federal statutes, the Tennessee reporter’s shield law and “just plain good sense” in a subpoena asking for the identities of commenters on stories about planned suburban school districts. Memphis attorney Lucian Pera and Washington attorney Paul Alan Levy, a member of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, asked in a letter to the Baker Donelson law firm that it withdraw the subpoena request. The request was filed in federal court July 25, asking for the identities of all online commenters to 45 stories that ran between Nov. 19, 2010, and July 12, 2012.
In the letter, the newspaper attorneys said those stories produced more than 9,000 comments on The Commercial Appeal’s website and included stories that ran after legislation already was passed in the Tennessee legislature to authorize referendums on whether to set up independent school districts in six municipalities.
Meanwhile, TNReport says Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris is not happy with a Shelby subpoena for legislator email: Sen. Mark Norris says he will comply with the Shelby County Commission’s requests for all correspondence dealing with the controversial Memphis-Shelby schools merger. But the Senate majority leader and chief architect of legislation dictating rules for combining the school systems thinks the demand is being made principally in the spirit of hassling him and other lawmakers.
“It is a major fishing expedition, but you know, knock themselves out. We’ll give them what we have,” said Norris, a Republican from Collierville, told TNReport this week.
Lawyers for the Shelby County Commission are asking the General Assembly to fork over any communication related to laws dictating rules for the merger between the two school systems as they assemble a case in court to block six suburbs from beginning their own school systems.
The commission is asking for documents dating back as far as 2010 relating to three laws dictating rules for the merger, namely SB25, SB1923 and SB2908.
Whoever posts at commercialappeal.com under the name “Timeout” is steamed at the Shelby County Commission, and he’s far from alone. So reports the Commercial Appeal: At 2:33 p.m. Monday, Timeout posted his thoughts on the commission’s controversial 8-5 vote to support a subpoena seeking to force the newspaper to reveal the identities of anonymous commenters on its website.
“What’s next? … Will drones with listening devices be flown around my house? Background investigations for those who have put up pro-muni signs in their yards? Why are some of the commissioners acting as if they are taking direction from Vladimir Putin?”
Timeout’s rant joins nearly 1,200 other posts on the newspaper’s website since the subpoena story first broke Sunday. A majority of those comments are highly critical of the commission’s actions.
The subpoena arose as part of the federal court motion the commission’s attorneys filed in June to block the referendums on separate school districts for Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington. In that motion, attorneys argued that those behind the referendums are trying to discriminate by carving out majority white suburban districts from the new unified school system.
The Shelby County Commission has filed a subpoena in federal court asking for the identities of all online commenters in The Commercial Appeal’s stories about suburban plans to create their own school districts.
More from Sunday’s CA: Editor Chris Peck called the request a “fishing expedition” and an unwarranted invasion of readers’ privacy, and the newspaper’s attorney, Lucian Pera, said he will resist on grounds the subpoena infringes on the work of the newspaper and the rights of readers.
County Commission attorney Imad Abdullah said in the subpoena the county wants first and last names, postal addresses and telephone numbers of all account users who posted comments, including comments the newspaper’s digital media staff removed because they were racially charged or otherwise inappropriate.
Abdullah did not specify a reason for the request nor how the information would be used, and he did not return calls or e-mails asking about the county’s motives. But Lori Patterson, a spokeswoman for his law firm, sent an e-mail saying, “At this point, we would prefer not to comment on the purpose of the subpoena.”
The subpoena the attorneys filed this week specifies 45 newspaper stories dating from Nov. 19, 2010, to July 12, 2012. The earliest story was about the Memphis school board’s initial consideration of surrendering its charter, a move that ultimately led to the merger of city and county schools. The latest story was about U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel ‘Hardy’ Mays’ ruling allowing municipalities to hold referendums on whether to set up independent school districts with the caveat that the constitutionality of the referendums will have to be decided later.
On June 26, the County Commission attorneys filed a federal court motion to block the Aug. 2 referendums to start school districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington. They argued that the people who arranged the referendums are trying to discriminate against African-Americans by carving out majority white suburban districts from the new unified school district.
An attorney representing Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett in his divorce has subpoenaed the News Sentinel to produce building visitor logs and video surveillance recordings.
From Mike Donila’s story: The subpoena, delivered to editor Jack McElroy on Friday afternoon, asks for sign-in sheets for all News Sentinel visitors between May 15 and June 24. It also asks for all videotapes “or other video recorded medium containing surveillance of the front entrance, visitor parking area, and other parking areas adjacent to the visitor parking, and/or lobby” during the same time frame.
On Monday, the newspaper filed a motion to quash the subpoena.
Burchett referred questions Monday to his divorce lawyer, Albert J. Harb. Harb, who once served as the delinquent tax attorney for the Knox County Trustee’s Office, did not return a call seeking comment.
The subpoena asks McElroy or the “custodian of records” to bring the requested items to Harb’s office by July 11.
It does not say why Burchett or Harb want them.
The mayor and his wife have been the subject of several recent stories about misstatements in a number of Burchett’s 2010 campaign finance disclosure forms. Banking information from the “Elect Burchett” account was provided to the paper on the condition of anonymity.
McElroy and others said they suspect the subpoena is an effort to flush out the source.
“This is a heavy-handed attempt by the mayor to identify the source of a story he didn’t like,” McElroy said. “Newspapers don’t give up anonymous sources, and we certainly will fight this subpoena to the full extent of the law.”
Richard Hollow, the paper’s attorney, filed the motion to kill the subpoena Monday afternoon. Hollow said it was nothing more than an attempt to circumvent the state shield law, which is designed to protect reporters from revealing confidential information or sources.
“It’s pretty clear that they think someone walked into the News Sentinel and gave us a story, so they’re looking for a photograph or a name on the sign-in sheet that would indicate the person they think was the source,” he said. “That’s the only reason to do it other than to harass or intimidate us. They know who they’re looking for.”
Hollow said Harb is “astute enough” not to directly ask the paper to reveal its source for the stories, since the shield law would protect the paper. Instead, he said, the attorney is making an “indirect inquiry” in a way in which no case law exists in Tennessee.
“This particular mechanism has never been used before to avoid the shield law,” Hollow said. “But if the courts follow the spirit and intent of the law, then we should win.”
The paper’s attorney also said he was concerned that the “breadth of the inquiry disregards the interest of the other people” who have visited the News Sentinel.
“People who signed in or were recorded would then have their likeness and name as part of the record of the chancery court proceedings, and when you walk into the News Sentinel you don’t have the expectation that you’ll become a part of the public record,” he said.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Lawmakers trying to quash subpoenas seeking information that might reveal details about why they voted for a measure that overturned Nashville’s anti-discrimination ordinance have released 2,200 documents, but plaintiffs’ attorneys said Monday they aren’t satisfied.
Counsel for Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet and Reps. Jim Gotto of Hermitage and Glen Casada of Franklin told Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy that their Republican clients don’t have any more documents to provide.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys are looking for communication the lawmakers may have had with lobbyists. The measure was signed into law earlier this year and has been adamantly opposed by several large companies.
The law prohibits local governments from creating anti-discrimination regulations that are stricter than the state’s. It repealed a Nashville city ordinance barring companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city. Nashville’s ordinance was broader than the state’s anti-discrimination laws, which cover only race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include three Nashville councilmembers who supported the ordinance and Lisa Howe, a former Belmont University soccer coach whose departure from the private Christian university led to the city’s ordinance that passed in April. Players at Belmont said Howe was forced to leave because she came out to them with the news that her partner was having a baby.
Plaintiff attorney Abby Rubenfeld told reporters after Monday’s hearing that only about 10 documents are relevant to the case. She said the rest are mostly letters from constituents.
“We’re not trying to get their internal communications,” Rubenfeld said. “We want their communication as state legislators. They don’t have a right to lobby in secret.”
A potentially ground-breaking gay rights lawsuit could turn on what transpired during a private meeting of Christian conservative businessmen and politicians on a snowy day in January at the LifeWay offices of the Southern Baptist Convention, reports The City Paper. That 90-minute meeting — a political strategy session — led directly to the state law that overturned Nashville’s anti-gay bias ordinance, and a who’s who of the state’s Christian Right — including lawmakers and Nashville businessman Lee Beaman — are trying to quash subpoenas aimed at forcing them to surrender any documents that might exist about their plans.
A hearing is scheduled this week before Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy — the first skirmish in the lawsuit brought by Metro Council members and others alleging the state law illegally discriminates against gay, lesbian and transgender people.
In an expansive view of legislative privilege contained in the state constitution, Reps. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, and Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, are claiming a near-blanket immunity from subpoenas.
That privilege in the past has been interpreted only to shield legislators from liability in lawsuits for statements made during debates on the House or Senate floor. But Gotto, Casada and Beavers argue they enjoy immunity for their actions outside the legislature as well, even those that are strictly political in nature.
Also resisting subpoenas are Beaman and officials of Tennessee Family Action Council, an evangelical organization that lobbied heavily for the state law. They contend, variously, that the subpoenas are “far-reaching and unbridled” and make “unreasonable and unduly oppressive” demands for internal documents detailing the council’s political strategies.
By attempting to produce documents to prove the true purpose of the law was to discriminate, the subpoenas are important to the plaintiffs’ case.
During the legislative debate, the law’s advocates denied any anti-gay bias. Instead, they cast their law as an attempt to prevent confusing and burdensome new regulations from popping up all over the state. Nashville’s ordinance barred discrimination against gays by any company doing business with the city government. The state law overturned that ordinance and prohibited any city from adopting such laws in the future anywhere in Tennessee. To underline what they claim as their intent, lawmakers titled the law the “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act.”
…So to win their lawsuit, Tennessee’s plaintiffs must show legislators were deliberately aiming to deny the rights of gay people while claiming they were not — an alleged subterfuge the subpoenas aim to unmask.