Judge dismisses libel case against Tenn. senator
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A judge in northeast Tennessee is dismissing a $750,000 libel lawsuit against state Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield for publishing false information online about a Democratic candidate for the state House in 2008.
Campfield, a Knoxville Republican, blogged before the election that year that he had heard candidate Roger 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.
“It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, and this stuff happens,” Circuit Judge John McAfee said, according to a transcript of Wednesday’s court hearing in Jacksboro.
“Sometimes you just get beat, and that’s just the plain simple truth of the matter,” he said. He added: “Politics are politics, and it’s a big boys and big girls game. That’s just the way it is.”
McAfee acknowledged that Campfield had gotten it wrong on his blog, but he agreed with defense attorneys that the lawmaker did not know the information provided by House Republican leadership was false when he posted it.
“The senator was conversing with the Republican apparatus. They apparently had criminal history on a gentleman, this guy’s son, a very similar name, except the middle name,” McAfee said. “I can see how you could mess that up. It is what it is.”
McAfee said in the hearing that the legal standard for determining libel of public officials involves proving malicious intent or “a complete reckless disregard of the truth” or an awareness that the information was probably false.
Byrge has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling, said his attorney David Dunaway.
State Democrats expressed disappointment in the judge’s ruling.
“Sen. Campfield acted irresponsibly and there should be consequences,” Brandon Puttbrese, the state party’s spokesman said in an email. “Ultimately voters will have to hold Sen. Campfield accountable for his appalling and shameful record of spreading lies and misinformation.”
Campfield is a highly visible lawmaker who draws frequent attention and occasional ridicule for sponsoring contentious bills on social issues, including one dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and another that would cut welfare benefits to parents whose children aren’t doing well in school. Both failed this year.
Campfield argued in legal depositions that he was just repeating information he had received from House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin. Casada and the state Republican Party also were sued by Byrge but settled the case on undisclosed terms.
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.
He was also dismissive of suggestions that his blog could influence the public or his fellow lawmakers.
“I doubt that,” Campfield said in the deposition. “Most of them don’t even know how to turn on a computer.”