Cable-access host claims he was arrested for criticizing public officials

Thursday, January 20, 2000

David Parrish, host of a cable-access television show in Franklin County, Tenn., says he will file a lawsuit, contending that sheriff's deputies and other local officials conspired to violate his civil rights by breaking into his home and arresting him during his live show.

Parrish, who hosts the call-in talk show from 7 to 10:30 p.m. every Thursday, contends his First Amendment rights were flagrantly violated when sheriff's deputies arrested him at home on Jan. 13 on charges of telephone harassment. He was also charged with resisting arrest.

He claims he was arrested because he criticized a local judge, Franklin County General Sessions Judge Floyd Don Davis, whom Parrish alleges did not contact local authorities promptly after his son was involved in a car accident.

“Absolutely, my First Amendment rights have been violated,” Parrish said. “I have been punished for criticizing public officials.”

During Parrish's arrest, which was shown on the live cable broadcast, deputies broke through a sliding glass door at his home. The police were serving a warrant filed by Dr. Jerry Anderson, a local chiropractor and a Winchester city councilman who claimed that Parrish had harassed him over the telephone.

Parrish disputes Anderson's charge. “All I did was call his office and tell someone from his office that he would be the target of my upcoming show,” Parrish said. “I did not even talk directly to him but to his secretary. Next thing I know, I have been served with a warrant.”

Anderson confirmed that Parrish did not speak directly to him, and that Parrish told the secretary that Anderson would be “a target on [Parrish's] show.”

“Why did he have to use the word 'target' instead of the word 'subject'?” Anderson said.

Anderson said the phone call to his office was “just the climax” of what he called Parrish's harassing conduct, including what Anderson interpreted as implied threats on the air. According to Anderson, Parrish had encouraged callers to make negative comments about Anderson since at least mid-October. He said his fears about Parrish were also based on a conversation he had with Parrish in which he claims Parrish said in an “eerie or sinister-sounding tone that he might 'go postal' one day.”

Parrish, who remained in jail overnight and was released on Jan. 14, claimed the deputies' actions were in retaliation for his criticisms of alleged corruption in Franklin County government. “I think the actions are directly related to my reporting on the Judge Davis situation and other reporting of government abuse down here in Franklin County,” he said.

Franklin County Sheriff Mike Foster said his deputies were not out to stifle Parrish's civil rights. “The deputies were just doing their job in serving the warrant. Our job is to merely serve the warrants. The warrant was taken out by Mr. Anderson and signed by a general sessions court clerk.”

“It did not matter to us who took out the warrant,” he said. “There was a signed warrant for telephone harassment. We did not make a determination as to the veracity of those charges. That is not our job. We do not make the probable cause determination.”

Foster defended the deputies' conduct in breaking down Parrish's door. “You have to understand the situation. We had gone to his house and repeatedly asked him to open the door. He kept delaying and then turned off the lights. We had also heard from someone that he might have automatic weapons in the house. When he turned off the lights we were afraid he might be going to get a gun.”

“David Parrish's case has as much to do with the First Amendment as a frog has tits,” said Robert Peters, attorney for Franklin County building inspector Tom Cohenour. Cohenour has sued Parrish for libel for comments made on his show.

“Parrish's show encourages callers to call in anonymously and make outrageous statements,” Peters said. “His show is replete with defamatory statements made without justification. Parrish engages in incessant, persistent libel.”

Peters accompanied Anderson to the Franklin County General Sessions Clerk's Office, where Tammy Terpay, deputy clerk for the office, approved the warrant for Parrish's arrest.

“We have to find probable cause that the crime alleged in the affidavit (telephone harassment) has been committed,” Terpay said. “I found probable cause in this case or I would not have issued the warrant. I don't want to answer any more questions about this because this is just one big mess.”

Anderson said that “when you take into account the nature of the phone call with the previous history of threats on the air, taking out the warrant was a proper course of action.” People need protection, Anderson said, from a “sadistic bully who gets control of the airwaves.”

“He is not a First Amendment martyr in the least,” Anderson said. “He is hiding behind people's opinions. He encourages defamation.”

But Parrish says his call-in show gives people a way to voice their views on public issues and public officials. He compared his show to an Internet chat room where people voice their opinions.

“I simply allow people to call in and express their opinion. Tom Cohenour, Judge Davis and Jerry Anderson are all public officials. Their actions should be placed under scrutiny,” Parrish said.

Anderson agreed that public officials should be subject to criticism, but not what he termed “malicious, intentional intimidation and abuse.”

“I believe in the First Amendment and its rights, but not in the abuse of those rights,” Anderson said.

Cohenour alleges in his lawsuit, Cohenour v. Parrish, that “the permitted anonymity of the callers [on Parrish's show] allows a caller to make public utterances which often are irresponsible, defamatory, abusive, insulting, and libelous.”

“This is the defendant's [Parrish's] method and his calculated practice, and its intended effect is to defame, insult and humiliate with impunity,” the lawsuit states.

“What Parrish does goes way beyond New York Times versus Sullivan,” said Peters, who is also Judge Floyd Don Davis' brother-in-law. “He makes statements with actual malice, is obsessive and completely irresponsible.”

Parrish is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 2 on the telephone-harassment charges. In the meantime, he says he is assembling a “team of attorneys” that will represent him in his civil rights lawsuit. He also says that he will continue with his cable-access show. “We're cranking up for a big Thursday.”