Court of Appeals Sends Campfield Defamation Case Back to Trial Court

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The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled earlier this week that the defamation lawsuit filed against state Sen. Stacey Campfield may proceed to trial, reversing the trial court’s earlier decision dismissing the case. Roger Byrge, an unsuccessful candidate for state representative in 2008, sued Sen. Campfield for posts placed on Campfield’s blog, “camp4u,” during the campaign.

On October 14, 2008, the blog contained allegations that Byrge had a drug-related arrest record. A post entitled “A tale of two races,” in part said: “How bout where Roger Byrge is running against police officer Chad Faulkner? Word is a similar mail piece has gone out exposing Byrges multiple separate drug arrests. Including arrests for possession and drug dealing. (I hear the mug shots are gold).”

The problem is that this Roger Byrge had no such arrest record. It was later confirmed that Byrge’s son had an arrest record.

The Court of Appeal’s opinion provided a concise summary of defamation law in Tennessee. “A libel action involves written defamation and a slander action involves spoken defamation. The basis for an action for defamation, whether it be slander or libel, is that the defamation has resulted in an injury to the person’s character and reputation. . . . To establish a prima facie case of defamation in Tennessee, the plaintiff must establish that: 1) a party published a statement; 2) with knowledge that the statement is false and defaming to the other; or 3) with reckless disregard for the truth of the statement or with negligence in failing to ascertain the truth of the statement.”

Defamation cases, especially against public figures, are hard to win. Many cases fail because even if the plaintiff can prove the above elements, they are unable to establish damages connected to the defamatory statements. However, the case against Campfield was dismissed by the trial court before the issue of potential damages arose.

Campfield’s defense is that he had no knowledge that the statement was false. In his affidavit submitted to the trial court, he testifed: ”The Post was based on a conversation I had with Glenn (sic) Casada (“Casada”) some time shortly before the Post was published on October 14, 2008. Casada is a Representative in the Tennessee House of Representatives for the 63rd District. …. I only reported what Casada told me during our conversation.”

The plaintiff, Mr. Bryge, concedes that he is a public figure for the purposes of this case. This is important because in addition to the above elements, if the subject of the defamatory statements is a public figure, then he or she must also prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the statements were made with “actual malice” or at least “reckless disregard” of the falsity of the statements.” In order to get past a motion for summary judgment, Byrge must make some showing of facts from which malice (or recklessness) may be inferred.

The Court of Appeals stated the issue as follows: “The standard is whether the record before us contains clear and convincing evidence from which the trier of fact (a jury) could find actual malice.”

The Court of Appeals appeared to rely heavily on Rep. Casada’s testimony. “According to Casada, the information he conveyed to Campfield merely was preliminary. Contrary to Campfield’s affidavit, Casada stated that he impressed upon Campfield the preliminary nature of the information and that he did not intend for it to be disseminated without verification.” The court also made particular note of the fact that Campfield admitted he did not do any independent investigating to verify the information about Byrge.

Based on the record at this stage of the case, the court found that reasonable minds could consider it “at least reckless” to publish information tending to tarnish someone’s reputation on the basis of “may have.” To underscore its point, the court went on to say, “A public figure, even a politician, is neither totally immune from nor totally unprotected by the law of defamation.”

Byrge v. Campfield, Tenn. Ct. App., No. E2013-01223-COA-R3-CV-FILED-SEPTEMBER 8, 2014

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